By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
MIAMI — Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The Indiana Pacers’ starting lineup has outscored the Miami Heat (by 29 points) in its floor time in the Eastern Conference finals. But when the Pacers have had one or more reserves on the floor, they’ve been pretty awful (minus-34). And thus, they’re down 2-1 with a need to get Game 4 on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Yes, this is the same story as we had in last year’s conference finals, when the Pacers’ starters were a plus-49 in seven games and all other Indiana lineups were a minus-77.
With that in mind, reworking the bench was the focus of the Pacers’ summer. They traded for Luis Scola and signed C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. But in the regular season, lineups that included at least one reserve were only slightly better (plus-2.0 points per 100 possessions) than they were last season (plus-1.8).
In February, the Pacers signed Andrew Bynum and traded Danny Granger for Evan Turner, moves that somehow threw their starters in a funk. They’ve been better in the postseason, but the bench is back to bringing the Pacers down.
The playoff numbers aren’t as bad as they were last season, but Indiana lineups with at least one reserve on the floor have been pretty dreadful offensively and have been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions in 16 games. In this series, they’ve been awful on both ends of the floor and have been outscored by 30.3.
Scola scored eight straight points in the second quarter on Saturday, but has shot 2-for-11 otherwise. Ian Mahinmi has played just 23 minutes in three games. Turner has played just three, and managed to dribble straight into a triple-team upon entering Game 3. Watson has the worst plus-minus (minus-31 in 58 minutes) in the series.
The only reserve that hasn’t hurt the Pacers in this series is Rasual Butler. Meanwhile, the Heat have gotten lifts from Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis, all of whom have been trusted and empowered much more than anyone on Indiana’s bench.
That’s why some of this has to come back on Pacers coach Frank Vogel. In a sprint for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage (which they lost in Game 2) from the start of the season, the Pacers weren’t willing to sacrifice games to develop their bench. Over the last two seasons, the Indiana starting lineup has played almost twice as many minutes (3,429) as any other lineup in the league.
Part of that is health. They’ve been fortunate that none of their starters have missed more than eight games in either season.
Part of it is dependence. When the starters are much better than the reserves, teams tend to stick with them for longer minutes.
But part of it is a lack of foresight. Scola, Watson and Mahinmi had regular roles during the season, but guys like Copeland and Butler were basically used in garbage time.
And so, while the Heat can adjust their lineup however they need to according to the matchup or who’s playing well (witness Cole and Allen helping them destroy Indiana in Saturday’s fourth quarter), the Pacers are rather rigid.
When his team is struggling to match up with Miami’s small lineup in transition and David West is chasing Allen around multiple screens, there’s little Vogel can do. He isn’t going to take West off the floor, because he’s his most stable and dependable player. If he benches Roy Hibbert, Vogel has lost his rim protection against the best rim attacker in the league.
Foul trouble is another problem. With George Hill and Paul George forced to sit extra minutes in Game 3, the Pacers’ defense didn’t hold up. Lance Stephenson was forced to play all of the final three quarters and looked gassed as the Heat pulled away in the fourth.
In its last six wins, Miami has outscored its opponents in the fourth quarter by an average score of 26.5-19.5. The Heat haven’t been superb all game, every game, but they get it done when they need to.
Might the Pacers’ starters be able to hang with the champs better in the fourth quarter if their reserves had given them a little more production and rest earlier in the game?
That question may still linger if Indiana doesn’t turn this series back around on Monday. To do that, they’ll need more production from the bench.