It may not be a rivalry, and there may be no such thing as ‘statement' games in early December, but every time the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat face-off it is sure to be one of the most fascinating chess matches in the league today. While one relies on size, defensive toughness, and interior strength the other makes its living with small line-ups, pace, fluid ball movement, and precision-like efficiency.
When the two opposing styles collide, the script for the head-to-head match-ups is usually the same. In order to counter the Pacers' inside presence, the Heat, typically, spread the floor by filling their starting line-up with multiple stretch shooters. Most often, Chris Bosh will start the game off by knocking down a few early shots from the perimeter, maybe even a three, in an attempt to lure DPOY candidate, Roy Hibbert, away from the rim, thus creating more space in the paint for his teammates. The Pacers then counter attack by making sure they take full advantage of mismatches on the offensive end by getting the ball inside.
After playing eleven games against each other in the last calendar year alone, both squads know exactly what the other brings to the table. On any given night, it is really just a matter of which team will execute its style most effectively. Will the Heat succeed in stretching the floor, converting turnovers, and neutralizing the Pacers' size, or will Indiana clog-up the lane and pound the ball inside with enough efficiency to counter Miami's small ball?
It just so happens that on December 10, size, strength, physicality, and defensive tenacity were victorious, giving the Pacers a 6-5 record over the reigning champs in the past year.
It was a solid win, yet somewhat predictable when considering how well the Pacers are capable of playing when they are focused-in and play to their strengths. According to First Take's Stephen A. Smith, nothing about the Pacers' regular season victory over Miami should have surprised spectators:
"Indiana was big, they were strong, and they played to their strengths in the second half. They amped up the defensive pressure on the Miami Heat and forced them into about 42% shooting for the game, whereas Indiana shot about 50%. David West and Roy Hibbert took advantage in terms of size and girth inside, and Paul George showed-up in the second half. We learned what we already knew. The Indiana Pacers are big, they're strong, they're physical. They want Miami very, very badly. They treat these games with the importance that it deserves in their mind."
Nevertheless, Stephen A. concluded that one win, at home, is not enough to prove that the Pacers are ready to topple the Heat, stating:
"But still in all, you cannot give them the edge over Miami just yet as long as their guard play is suspect in terms of protecting the basketball and making the right decisions. That is something they're going to have to improve upon, or dare I say, use the return of Danny Granger, hope he plays well, so you can use him in a trade to get an upgrade at the point guard spot."
In the First Take analyst's opinion, what fans can take away from last night's clash of the Eastern Conference titans, more than anything else, is that Indiana is going to need more consistent play out of their backcourt if they are going to dethrone the champs in a seven game series:
"The Indiana Pacers are going to need improved guard play. Lance Stephenson, George Hill, and those guys, CJ Watson, were not bad at all, but you need to be better than not bad. You need to be better than good, come playoff time, to beat the Miami Heat. Because, when they amp up that pressure, it neutralizes Indiana to some degree because the size and girth and the mass that they have at their disposal with the likes of Roy Hibbert and David West cannot be utilized effectively, if your guards are turning the ball over and giving in to the pressure that the Miami Heat can apply."
It is certainly interesting that Stephen A. should bring this up after last night's match-up, a contest in which Indiana's frontcourt combined for 18 of the team's 21 turnovers (Paul George 6, David West 7, Luis Scola 4, and Roy Hibbert 1), while the backcourt only gave up the ball on 3 occasions (George Hill 1, Lance Stephenson 2).
That being said, Smith may have a point about the backcourt being the lynchpin for the Indiana Pacers' future success.
For evidence, look no further than the win/loss splits compiled over at basketball-reference.com. In Indiana's 19 wins so far this season, George Hill is averaging 12.1ppg on 42% shooting. Meanwhile, Lance Stephenson is averaging 12.8ppg on 48% shooting. Comparatively, in the team's three losses, each player's scoring average dips to 7.0ppg (26%) and 7.3ppg (35%), respectively. Perhaps, even more telling is that both backcourt starters' usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he is on the floor) also decreases when the Pacers come-up short.
In contrast, the production of Indiana's frontcourt remains relatively steady irrespective of the game's final score. When comparing wins and losses, Roy Hibbert's scoring average differs by only 1.2 ppg, David West's scoring output changes by only 1.1 ppg, and Paul George actually scores 4.9 ppg fewer in wins. All three frontcourt starters also post nearly identical field goal percentages regardless of whether their team is victorious or not. In fact, the only notable change when comparing the splits is that Paul George's usage rate is, believe it or not, lower by 3.3 percentage points in wins.
So what does all of this add up to exactly?
Not surprisingly, the usage rate statistics seem to point to the fact that Indiana is better as a team when the whole starting line-up is actively involved and contributing, instead of merely relying on the efforts of just one player (hence, the reason why the team is more successful when Hill and Stephenson's usage percentages are higher and Paul George's rate is lower). This conclusion also seems to coincide with the fact that Paul George averages 2.0 more assists per game in wins than in losses - indicating that he is doing a better job of facilitating his teammates in games where the Pacers come out on top.
Even so, the question remains as to why Paul George is being relied upon more in losses, or, in other words, why did he feel the need to carry more of the load when the Pacers came up short against the Bulls, Blazers, and Thunder? Perhaps, it is because his backcourt teammates are, in fact, shooting at a lower percentage, scoring far fewer points, and grabbing fewer rebounds in losses. All in all, it could be said, that in losses, Paul George has felt it necessary to put the team on his back because, like Stephen A. Smith says, the guard play, on average in those match-ups, has been "suspect."
In general, whether in wins or losses, the frontcourt has been remarkably consistent, whereas the guards have been somewhat predictably erratic.
In wins, Stephenson and Hill have combined, on average, for 24.9 ppg; however, when the Pacers have failed to add another game to their win total, the duo has scored only 14.3 ppg. Experiencing marked swings in production, the backcourt is unquestionably the Pacers' barometer for success.
In the team's first victory over the Heat, they combined for 17 points.
Not bad. But like the First Take analyst questioned, will ‘not bad' or ‘good' be enough in a seven game series against the defensive pressure of the Miami Heat?
An excellent test, of course, is coming up on December 18th when the Pacers travel to Miami for the next potential preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Which way will the backcourt barometer needle point, W or L?