Michael Walton II is following the NBA throughout this playoff season.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and burgeoning high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
Before I get into my Eastern Conference Final preview, first off, I want to say sorry to my readers who were looking for more of my analysis of the NBA Playoffs than I’ve offered so far, but after a brief hiatus in which I was swamped with college finals week, Rob Ford news, Jay-Z vs Solange news, and an absolutely amazing NBA playoffs, I am now back like LeBron’s hairline.
The second round of the playoffs played out just as amazing as the first. Out in the wild, wild West Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both turned in back-to-back great performances to propel Oklahoma City into their Western Conference showdown with San Antonio. And while the Eastern Conference is usually looked at as the weaker, more top-heavy conference, this playoffs they have showed that they may be the conference with the most potential.
We saw great performances from young teams such as the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, and of course the Indiana Pacers, who survived an array of seemingly mental setbacks to overcome their first two playoff opponents and bring themselves back in contention with the one team they’ve wanted to see all year — the defending champion Miami Heat, who themselves walked through Charlotte and Brooklyn to get to their fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.
After an offensively challenged second-round series in which the Wizards and Pacers took turns trading blowout victories, the Pacers are now exactly where they want to be. They have done all this with an uneven playoff season thus far from perhaps their most important player, Roy Hibbert.
Unfortunately for coach Frank Vogel and the Pacers, Hibbert’s struggles are of no concern to the defending champion Miami Heat.
Whether or not people want to admit it (and for us Chicagoans it is especially hard), James has been playing at a Michael Jordan-level this postseason. He takes responsibility for his actions while holding others accountable for their mistakes and he plays the role of defensive stopper while also being his team’s top option on offense.
Oh, and by the way, James’ postseason PER (Player Efficiency Rating) through nine games is 32.83 (an average PER is around 15.00), which would place James’s playoff run somewhere between Jordan’s in 1991 and ‘03 Tim Duncan, both wound up being champions that season.
So now we know the match-ups. For the first time in close to a decade, both conference crowns will be decided in series pitting the number one seed against the number two seed. Now that the background info is out of the way, we can dig deeper into these match-ups. First I’ll look at the East, watch out for my West preview prior to Monday’s Game 1 between the Spurs and the Thunder.
Eastern Conference Finals: (1) Miami Heat vs (2) Indiana Pacers
This year’s Pacers-Heat scrap, the third time they’ve met in as many postseasons, is expected to be an epic slugfest reminiscent of basketball in the ‘90s. Points will be hard to come by in general, and there are some important factors that shouldn’t be ignored. In last year’s seven-game battle royale ,Roy Hibbert’s emergence was the main factor that allowed a young Pacers squad to push the NBA champions to the brink of elimination.
In that series Hibbert averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds while exposing the Heat’s main problem: rebounding. The Heat are not as concerned now, as they have been playing with the weakness for some time now, and they won last year’s postseason contest with the Pacers ending +55 in total rebounds for the series. Hibbert’s rebounding numbers were also a testament to how great his rim protection was.
Hibbert defends in a textbook fashion with his arms straight up, and because of this the Pacers were able to limit the Heat to one shot on most offensive possessions. The problem for the Pacers in the present is that Hibbert has lost a lot of confidence over this season, and specifically these playoffs, and his performances have been sub-par on the rebounding end.
Like most big men who have not yet reached their full potential, when Hibbert fails to have an impact on offense, his defense suffers. And the Pacers need Hibbert to anchor their defense if they want a chance at dethroning the Heat.
Pacers Offense: The Pacers have struggled heavily on this side of the ball throughout the postseason. Indiana averages 91 points a game, a mark that easily makes them the worst offensive team left in the postseason. Their offense isn’t too complicated, and sometimes they rely a bit too much on the hot-shooting of Paul George, who has 211 shots up so far, good for top-five chucker status this postseason.
George has improved his 3-point shooting and has helped the Pacers to their top three 3-point shooting percentage of 37.9%. The Heat have not been amazing at stopping the three ball so far, so Indiana will need to continue to the outside. But to stop the intense ball pressure of Miami the Pacers have to get good shots at the rim.
Unless Hibbert for sure has some confidence back (something only he or Pacers coach Frank Vogel would know) it would be pointless to post him up just so he can miss layups. Rather the Pacers should make sure to involve the “big three” (especially LeBron) in multiple pick-and-rolls on every play. This will tire out Heat players, while also providing Indiana’s big men with some gimmies that will give them the confidence they need to score consistently going forward.
But even with an improved bench that includes rugged forward Luis Scola, Evan Turner, and Chris Copeland it is tough to see the Pacers putting up enough points on the Heat’s “bend-but-don’t-break” defense. For a team that struggles to score like the Pacers, sometimes the best offense is simply a better defense.
Heat Offense: The Heat offense has been humming along with remarkable efficiency. In the playoffs their shooting percentages have been second only to the San Antonio Spurs. LeBron’s impact has been painfully obvious, but fans should not overlook the playoff contributions of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (combining for 32.5 points a game).
Wade continues to play his slashing style but with a little bit more veteran savvy. Bosh on the other hand has turned himself into a huge 3-point threat. Entering Sunday, Bosh is shooting a scorching 48.6% from three point land. The Heat may go to Bosh more than in any previous series because Indiana doesn’t really have an ideal matchup for him.
When Bosh is in the game, and especially when he is playing the 5 positio hn,e drags the Pacers’ rim protectors out of the paint, which provides perfect floor spacing to allow drives to the basket. The Heat will need these drives because besides LeBron they don’t get to the free throw line nearly enough. If D-Wade is healthy for this series, the Heat will be just fine.
Pacers Defense: The Indiana Pacers bread and butter is their defense. Among the top teams all season in defense, they are the top team left in terms of opponent’s field goal percentage (40.4%) and it is the primary reason they are still here today. The Pacers have done well against the Heat on defense this year and will need to continue this trend, as a series full of “first to 90 points” games is the type of series the Pacers need in order to have a real chance to win.
As mentioned previously, Roy Hibbert needs to be a force specifically on this end of the floor. Making sure to play hard without fouling will be important for him. Right now he is committing 4.7 fouls per 36 minutes. This is a laughable rate for someone who was considered the best rim defender in the league not too long ago.
The Pacers will have to use multiple defenders on LeBron James because Paul George’s offensive production will decrease dramatically if he is tasked with shadowing James all series long by his lonesome. This defense will succeed by shifting away from Wade and challenging him to have 40-point games. It sounds crazy, but Wade isn’t getting any younger, and freeing up shots for him is Indiana’s best chance of getting the ball out of James’s hands.
X-Factor: I have read many previews of the ECF, and opinions have varied greatly on the potential “x-factor.” Some have said Miami’s Udonis Haslem could be the guy, others have said Indiana’s Evan Turner needs to provide a spark off the bench. All of these are valid opinions, but I believe the true x-factor is Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has proved he can make the subtle adjustments needed at this level to lead his team to championships, he has given at least ten minutes a game to 11 players this postseason, while Vogel only goes nine deep.
This is interesting because Indiana doesn’t even use 24-year old Lavoy Allen, who could be a useful body in the paint against the physical, yet smaller, Heat squad. Vogel has a lot to prove, and even though team president Larry Bird maintains that Vogel’s job is safe, he needs to get the Pacers over the hump and into the Finals or else the doubt surrounding his job security next year will be unbearable (shout out to Mike D’Antoni).
My Pick: In the end it is tough to bet against the best player on the planet in LeBron James. He is basically good for two and half wins a series (playoff win shares for James are exactly 2.5). Combine this with how poorly the Pacers have been playing at home and it seems very likely that the Pacers could be down 3-0 very quickly, which is ironic considering how motivated the Pacers had been all year to get the No. 1 seed in the East and the home court advantage that comes with it.
I will not dismiss Indiana completely, simply because Hibbert seems to get his most motivated to play against Miami. I see Hibbert reverting back to his 22 point/11 rebound self, but only for two games. The Miami Heat have mental toughness, while the Pacers severely lack it. And for that reason I have the Miami Heat winning in six and making their fourth straight NBA Finals.
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