By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers played one of their best offensive games of the season on Sunday. It was uncharacteristic and, in part, unsustainable.
But the Miami Heat can’t count on the Pacers to just play worse in Game 2 on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The champs can defend a lot better.
The Heat got burned by the Pacers’ pick-and-roll in Game 1. In some cases, it was about a simple failure to contain the ball-handler. But often, the roll man caught the ball too close to the basket.
Here’s an example from the second quarter, where LeBron James hedged hard on a Lance Stephenson–David West pick-and-roll, and then lingered too long well above the 3-point line.
James is in no-man’s land, where he’s neither pressuring the ball nor defending his own man. So Stephenson is able to make a pretty easy pass to West in the middle of the floor.
If West just makes the catch at the foul line, the Pacers have a four-on-three situation. But what happens is worse.
West makes the catch at the dotted circle. Rather than meeting West at the free-throw line, Chris Bosh – the help defender – has his feet inside the restricted circle on the catch. And he allows West to turn into an easy four-foot hook shot (video).
So James’ mistake in defending the pick-and-roll was compounded by Bosh’s late help.
Far too often on Sunday, the Heat’s weak-side help defender did not meet the roll man far enough from the basket. And West’s shot distances are all the evidence you need.
In the regular season, 21 (45 percent) of West’s 47 shots against the Heat were from outside the paint. In last year’s conference finals, 43 (44 percent) of of his 98 shots came from outside the paint. But in Game 1 on Sunday, only two of his 11 shots were from outside the paint, and none were from farther than 14 feet.
West wasn’t the only beneficiary of the Heat’s slow rotations. Miami held its own against Roy Hibbert in the low post. If he caught the ball outside the paint, he struggled to score, even one-on-one against smaller defenders.
But when Hibbert caught the ball in the paint, the Heat were in trouble …
- Late in the first quarter, he fumbled a pick-and-roll pass, but still caught it in the paint, with only James Jones between him and the basket (video).
- Midway through the second, Norris Cole was the only help on a Stephenson/Hibbert pick-and-roll in transition, and he got there late (video).
- Midway through the fourth, Hibbert made a roll catch at the dotted circle, with James late to help. When he got there, Dwyane Wade was late to rotate to West (video).
There were a couple of possessions here and there when the Heat defense was on point. In fact, their first defensive possession after Udonis Haslem entered the game for the first time may have been their best. And it started with Haslem’s help.
West set a side screen for Paul George, with Haslem defending Roy Hibbert on the weak side.
When West rolled to the low block, Haslem was there to meet him.
Mario Chalmers sank in from the weak side to prevent an interior pass to Hibbert, and then recovered back out to George Hill in the corner (video).
Having a point guard rotate to a seven-footer is not ideal. But this is what the Heat do defensively. And when they do it well, they’re quick to rotate, they disrupt passes, they challenge shots, and they shut down the opposing offense.
The question has always been consistency on that end of the floor. This season, in particular, Miami hasn’t been able to put two good defensive games together very often.
The problems on Sunday went well beyond the weak-side help.
“It’s all of it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after practice Monday. “Really, I don’t know if we’ve been that poor, certainly in the way we’ve graded it, since we put this team together. Across the board, that was about as poor as we’ve played defensively. And all aspects of it. It was the ball pressure. It was the commitment on the ball. It was the weak side. It was finishing possessions. It was doing it without fouling. It has to be much better, a much more committed effort, across the board.”
The Heat’s defensive system is not easy on its personnel. And when the opponent has big bodies like West and Hibbert, it’s even tougher.
“That’s what winning championships is about,” Bosh said. “You have to be uncomfortable. Playing a good team where you really have to trust your back-side defense is like, ‘Man, this is what people feel like playing against us.’ It’s not a good feeling to have to help and close out. It’s not cool. I don’t like it. Nobody likes it.
“But it’s a part of the game. That’s where that trust comes in. We’re going to have to be a little more solid as far as our discipline is concerned, and just rely on each other as a team.”
Pacers coach Frank Vogel said he expects the heat to be “more aggressive and more sharp” defensively on Tuesday.
If the Heat do that, you’ll see it in where help defense meets the Indiana roll man. If that meeting takes place farther from the basket than it did on Sunday, the Pacers won’t be able to get so many good looks.
“They’ve got a great team scheme, a great team approach,” Vogel said. “It’s not about one guy that they’re going to throw out there that’s an answer for [the Pacers’ bigs]. They play defense as a team, and they’ve won championships doing so. We just got to stay ahead of the curve.”