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Essay: The Pacers Big Strength Might Be Going Little

The NBA playoffs are designed to tax both the mind and the body. Much like an inexperienced swimmer venturing into dark, murky water, young players who’re knee deep in the second round for the very first time tend to meet unexpected challenges that are impossible to prepare for. Increased on-court intensity combined with an unhinged atmosphere surpassing that which they saw in the first round makes the slope to a championship even steeper, and guys all across the league are now tasting it for the first time. Right now for Indiana, it tastes like ice cream.

The Pacers are perceived to have a roster that’s all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, but this isn’t necessarily the case. While key contributors like Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, Paul George, and Darren Collison are all wandering in undiscovered land, Louis Amundson, David West, Leandro Barbosa, George Hill, and Dahntay Jones have at least played in the second round before. Last night, as they gutted through a hideous 48 minutes of playoff basketball, the Pacers looked like a tough-minded group, using unfamiliar lineups they didn’t dabble with throughout the regular season but finding serious success.

With Chris Bosh out for the series, a common belief is that Indiana should capitalize on their size advantage by throwing gobs of Roy Hibbert and David West at the Heat, slowing the game down and neutralizing a Miami offense that travels at two speeds: a carefully reckless 850 mph (in transition), and not moving at all (in the halfcourt). This is an offensive strategy that strangely enough worries more about Miami’s offense instead of attacking its defense. By playing through Hibbert and West and slowing things down, the Pacers would be placing the ball into the hands of two decent but not so great passers, allowing the Heat to load up on the strong side and use their swarming athleticism to fluster all action in the post.

Instead, what they should do (and they did it last night to their own benefit) is surround West with the likes of Granger, George, Collison, and Hill/Barbosa. Small ball. Here you have four ball-handlers who can initiate multiple pick and roll options, spread the floor with dangerous three-point shooting, and penetrate to create some drive and kick action. If those don’t work, the Pacers can also initiate their offense through David West in either the high or low post, creating chaos with multiple cutters on both the strong and weak sides of the court. Or they could go all meat and potatoes with West forcing the issue himself.

The ball movement with a lineup like this not only takes away Miami’s athleticism, it drains the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade who’re forced to play big minutes now that Bosh is out (last night James played the entire first quarter and the entire second half). By going small, the Pacers will make life miserable for the only two players on Miami’s roster who’re able to beat them. Tempers will flare, frustrations will show.

During the regular season, Indiana used the five-man unit of West, Granger, Hill, George, and Collison for a grand total of seven minutes, with all of them except one—an early season game in Sacramento—coming in meaningless garbage time. Still, in those seven minutes this lineup attempted 20 free-throws and scored 30 points, which is pretty damn impressive. In the playoffs, Frank Vogel used this group for five minutes at the end of Game 5 against Orlando and held their own.

The obvious con of deploying this lineup is this: you’re replacing Roy Hibbert—Indiana’s biggest advantage, no pun intended—with a six-foot Darren Collison. The small ball theory sounds really nice, but if the Pacers don’t hit their shots, then the thought looks much more pleasant on a computer screen than it does in real life.

Last night the Pacers went small, with Barbosa instead of Hill, to close out the third quarter. They scored eight points in three minutes, outscoring the Heat by five points. They then went back to it for about a minute early in the fourth, and were a +2. The sample sizes here are tiny, but promising. The Pacers had major success with their normal starting lineup on the court last night (plus/minus of +21 in 23 minutes), but if no Heat players apart from Wade and James are able to step up and make them pay, going small as a change of pace can advance this group further than any of them as individuals have ever gone before.

Categories: Essays
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