How The Pacers Can Break The Heat Defense

Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

The Pacers have made their way to the Eastern Conference Finals, overcoming the challenges of inconsistent offense with elite defense. The level of difficulty is about to ramp up significantly on both sides of the ball. The Pacers' game plan at the defensive end is mostly set, at this point it's all about execution. But on offense they may need some new wrinkles to break the Heat.

The Pacers' biggest advantage on the offensive end is their size. But anyone who watched last year's Eastern Conference Semi-Finals knows that the Heat's speed and athleticism can make it difficult for the Pacers to exploit this advantage. Roy Hibbert and David West won't simply be able to back their man down into deep post position to create easy scoring opportunities, for a couple of reasons.

When the Heat frontcourt defenders play behind Hibbert and West, their length and quickness on the perimeter make it extremely difficult to make an entry pass. The man playing the ball handler will usually shade towards the post cutting off easy passing angles. Here's an example from earlier this season of Dwyane Wade playing a step or two off Lance Stephenson, denying an entry to Hibbert.


The one thing you can't do in this situation is try and force a pass, which is unfortunately what the Pacers' did time and again in their series against the Heat last season. But you also can't stand and watch, waiting for an angle to open up. It's incumbent on the ball-handlers, Stephenson and George Hill in particular to either create a better angle with the dribble or attack that defender who's back on their heels.

However, the Pacers may not have to deal with this situation as often because the Heat will frequently front Hibbert and West in the post, particularly when they're playing smaller lineups. Last season the Pacers also had a ton of trouble dealing with this look, but they do have some simple ways to deal with it.

This first example is from earlier this season against the Heat and shows a few really important elements. The first is that it comes off a defensive rebound. Pushing the ball after misses, as well as turnovers, is going to be really important for the Pacers in terms of finding opportunities before the defense can get set. Because they've pushed the ball so quickly, West is able to push his man high and no other Heat defenders have had time to set up behind him. It creates the angle for an easy pass and the opportunity for an easy lay-in.

While getting early offensive opportunities is a must, the Pacers also have to be careful and exhibit self-control. They made a ton of turnovers in transition in last year's playoffs against the Heat and it's something the struggled with against both the Hawks and Knicks this year.

The most simplistic way of attacking a fronting defender is by quickly swinging the ball to another big man at the free throw line. The posting big then turns and seals his man creating a clear lane for both passing and shooting right in front of the rim. Here's an example of the Pacers using this type of attack earlier this season against the Bobcats.

While this is a fairly straightforward set, I could find very few examples of the Pacers using it this season, and none against the Heat. Usually when West is catching the ball near the top of the key, the Pacers like to clear out of the lane giving him opportunity to attack off the dribble. Even though they're not that experienced with it, working in this type of high-low action may give them a way to take advantage of Miami's smaller front line. Another wrinkle would be putting Hibbert at the top of the key and West on the block. Although Hibbert is a little more limited from that spot on the floor, he may be a better passer than West and his tremendous length gives him some different angles.

Having a big man stationed near the top of the key also gives the Pacers' other opportunities for attacking the Heat defense. Even though he will usually be matched against a smaller defender, West's ability to attack off the dribble from here usually results in good shots. Even if West doesn't find opportunities for himself, the threat of him driving will often pull in a perimeter defender and create the opening for a corner three-pointer, like in this play from earlier in the season against Denver.

The Pacers are going to need to create looks in transition, from the high post and by exploiting fronting defenders because they'll have an incredibly difficult time creating shots with just dribble penetration. Even against an average defense they don't do a great job of bending the defense in the pick-and-roll, but the Heat were the stingiest defense in the league this season on possessions finished by both pick-and-roll ball handlers and screeners, according to mySynergySports.

The one place where the Pacers did find success against the Heat's pick-and-roll defense this season was by sucking in an extra defender, leaving a shooter open in the corner. Here are two terrific looks, which both happen to be missed, created by Mario Chalmers drifting a little too close to the ball handler.

The Heat's primary pick-and-roll defense is superb, but it can bend their overall shape slightly and pull in less disciplined perimeter defenders like Chalmers, Norris Cole and occasionally Ray Allen. When they do go to the pick-and-roll the Pacers' ball handlers need to be really aggressive, putting pressure on the defense and changing the shape as much as possible. From there the entire team needs to be ready to swing the ball to the open man, even if it takes two or three passes.

If all this sounds extremely complicated, that's because it is. Although they were exposed at times during the regular season, the Heat have a terrific defense and their unique tools are a really tough matchup for Indiana. Everyone needs to play well, be aggressive, and find the right spots. The backcourt has to make outside shots. The frontcourt has to draw fouls and crash the offensive glass. Everyone has to hustle in transition. But most importantly, every second of the shot clock has to be used to further the pursuit of good shots at the basket. As long as the Heat's defense is static and holding its shape, the Pacers have next to no chance of finding an open opportunity. The ball and the players have to be constantly moving, side to side and end to end. There's no room for standing around and watching.

Against the Knicks and Heat, the Pacers' defense gave their offense a generous margin for error. That margin simply isn't there against Miami and it will take significant amounts of both creativity and execution to pull out four wins in the next seven games.

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