BY ZACH BUCKLEY (NATIONAL NBA FEATURED COLUMNIST)
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Credit a collapse of the Eastern Conference around these two teams for making Tuesday’s matchup in the Circle City a possible preview of the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals.
By any measure, these two clubs have established themselves among the league’s elites. Both hold top-five winning percentages, and both sit tied for the second-best net rating (plus-9.1 points per 100 possessions).
But that’s where the similarities stop. The success each team has enjoyed is undeniable, but the way they’ve bolstered the win column is drastically different.
Under the watchful eyes of a global audience, a statement will be made when these two monsters from the East clash for the first time this season.
Will Miami’s positionless, selfless offense present too many puzzles for Indiana’s staunch defense to solve? Or do these Pacers hold the secret ingredient for stopping the two-time defending champions in their tracks?
Time: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 7 p.m. ET
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Dwyane Wade (knee) probable; Michael Beasley (hamstring) questionable; Greg Oden (knee) out.
Danny Granger (calf) out.
How Miami Wins
With championship bling to show for each of the last two seasons, the Heat aren’t in the business of making early-season statements. Their body of work speaks for itself.
So while fans and analysts might have a must-win attitude about this game, LeBron James said there will be no measuring-stick meaning attached by his team, according toEli Kaberon of the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports): “I don’t get too much involved in regular-season matchups, especially early and in December. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to play them on Tuesday, but it’s not like it’s a statement game for us.”
But that doesn’t mean Miami can afford to play without a sense of urgency.
The Heat have a powerful offensive force that can strike from all angles. It starts at the top with James—who’s making a compelling case for the fifth MVP nod of his career (25.4 points, 6.3 assists, 6.2 rebounds and a scorching .594/.444/.787 shooting slash)—and trickles down to Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Miami’s potent supporting cast.
The Heat’s methodical offense has been carving up defenses all season (62.6 assist percentage, fifth overall), but this attack has been more controlled than in recent seasons (12.7 fastbreak points per game, tied for 14th via TeamRankings.com).
Miami needs to dictate the tempo. The more it can challenge before Indiana can get its league-best defense set, the better. The Pacers are not the league’s most disciplined team (16.3 turnovers per 100 possessions, 18th), so the Heat should have ample opportunity to get out in the open floor.
When the tempo slows, look for Miami to establish James on the offensive low block. Indiana’s Paul George can come close to matching James’ athleticism on the wing, but the King holds a 30-pound edge in the matchup. This also puts the rim-protecting RoyHibbert in a pick-your-poison scenario; Indiana either loses Hibbert’s ability to challenge shots, or it risks yielding wide-open looks to Miami’s bigs.
But this can’t be all about James, even if so many of Miami’s games seem to shape upthat way.
Wade, whose preservation plan has kept him sidelined for six games already, needs to demand defensive attention. Chris Bosh must knock down enough shots to pullHibbert from underneath the basket. Miami’s ball movement and perimeter shooting have to consistently produce.
In other words, maybe James is right. It’s hard to argue against Miami hitting the floor with a business-as-usual approach.
How Indiana Wins
Just as championships aren’t decided in December, neither are regular-season accolades.
Still, Indiana needs to see its hardware contenders bolster their campaigns.
George has to have an MVP-caliber impact on the box score. So far, that hasn’t been much of an issue. He’s pouring in a career-best 25.1 points a night, frustrating defenders with a James-esque .478/.423/.856 slash line.
Hibbert must continue to solidify his standing as the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner (9.1 rebounds, 3.1 blocks in 30.4 minutes per game).
But the Pacers need their stars to step outside their boxes, too.
George needs to garner some looks for that D.P.O.Y. honor. That means denying James driving lanes and making the King work to find interior touches.
Hibbert must command a bigger chunk of the offense (12.4 points per game). He battered and bruised this Miami frontcourt for 22.1 points on 55.7 percent shooting in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. His 7’2″, 278-pound frame is best built to hit Miami at its most vulnerable spot.
Miami isn’t going to get any bigger between now and tipoff. Indiana has to make the most of its size advantage.
But that’s only the beginning.
The Pacers need to come at the Heat in offensive waves. David West (12.8 points), Lance Stephenson (12.1) and George Hill (11.7) can’t let Miami focus its energy on slowing Hibbert and George.
The offense can’t just be high-powered; it also needs to be clean. The more Pacers possessions that end with a basket, the fewer transition chances the Heat will have.
Defensively, the Pacers need strong individual efforts from every player coach FrankVogel calls upon. The Heat can frustrate with their clockwork ball movement. Indiana’s challenge is plugging those passing lanes before they ever take shape.
The Pacers are one of just two remaining teams with an unblemished home record (9-0). An already raucous home crowd will raise the decibel levels when the hated Heat make their first visit of the 2013-14 season.
The Pacers, whether or not they admit it, have had this game circled since the schedule-makers first set up this colossal clash. The Pacers would love to get the first strike in this season series. This game means more to Indiana than it does Miami.
But put a gun to my head (Actually, don’t. I’ll give you my prediction without the threat of bodily harm.), and I’ll still side with the team enjoying a three-year reign over the Eastern Conference.
James will be special, Wade will provide another reminder of how dominant he still can be, and the Heat will have too much ammunition for the Pacers to contain.
Chalk this one up for the unstoppable force in its never-ending battle with the immovable object.
Heat 101, Pacers 96.