HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra uses the phrase “pace and space” about once every 86 seconds in his post-practice, post-shootaround, pregame and postgame press conferences. “Identity” is another one of Spoelstra’s buzz words. And yeah, the Heat want to attack the basket early and often and space the floor with their 3-point shooters.
Those shooters haven’t exactly been hurting the Indiana Pacers in these Eastern Conference finals. Ray Allen and Shane Battier are a combined 4-for-20 from 3-point range through the first three games. Mike Miller has played a little over six minutes.
But more important in this series has been the spacing of the Heat’s big men, who are providing a counter for Roy Hibbert‘s rim protection.
Chris Bosh has as many threes (4) as Allen and Battier combined, and two of those came when he was left open by a helping Hibbert. Five of Udonis Haslem‘s eight buckets in Game 3 came from outside 15 feet.
And then there’s Chris Andersen, who is a perfect 13-for-13 in the series. All 13 of his baskets have come from the restricted area, lay-ups, dunks and tip-ins. But those buckets have been made possible by Andersen’s initial position on those plays.
Three seconds before Andersen’s first basket of the series, he was standing about 20 feet from the rim. In fact, he had been standing there for 10 seconds as his teammates ran a couple of pick-and-rolls and moved the ball around the perimeter.
Andersen is no threat to shoot from out there. In 54 games with the Heat, he’s 5-for-15 from outside the paint. So Hibbert doesn’t have to venture out there to defend him. But Andersen’s positioning gives his teammates a passing lane when they penetrate and draw Hibbert’s attention.
If Andersen is closer to the basket (or if he’s the roll man in a pick-and-roll), Hibbert has the length and smarts to challenge the ball-handler and cut off the passing lane at the same time. But by pacing the floor so much, the Heat’s bigs force Hibbert to make a difficult choice.
In Game 3, that big spacing gave LeBron James room to operate in the post against Paul George. Now, the Pacers weren’t going to send a double-team at James, but, with his man hanging out in the opposite corner, Hibbert couldn’t get close enough to James to provide much of a threat.
“They really spread us out,” Hibbert said after Game 3, “so I wasn’t able to get down there as much as possible because Birdman was either on the three point line or Haslem was all the way in the corner, deep corner.”
The Pacers have stayed true to their identity and defensive principles all season, so how they defend James in the post in Game 4 on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) may be the most interesting question of these playoffs.
And it’s the Heat’s spacing that makes that decision so difficult. If they leave George on that island, the MVP could have another huge game. But if they send a double, his teammates, including the big men, could make Indiana pay.