The NBA Finals' entrants have been decided, and on Thursday night the San Antonio Spurs take their old school talents to South Beach to try and upset the defending champion Miami Heat. It is probably the best possible Finals scenario we could hope for once the Thunder lost Russell Westbrook, because the Spurs are probably the only team in the league that has both the smarts, guile, and balance to deal with Miami. However, that analysis is for another day.
Before we look forward, we need to look back at one of the more memorable Game 7's in recent NBA competition. The Heat have seen these 7 games series in the Conference Finals for the past two seasons, and so by now we can really eliminate just about every argument against them that they are not equipped to deal with just about any situation that arises. Unlike last year's battle with the Celtics, where the Heat were healthy, hungry, and opportunistic, this year's Game 7 over the Pacers was about holding onto what Miami felt was rightfully theirs. Bill Simmons has written in the past that some of the most compelling basketball is what you get when a champion tries to defend the title. That is when you learn the most about their value system, their resolve, and their ability to cope with anxiety.
While the final score of 99-76 may seem like the Heat finally figured out how to play up to their potential, I think that reasoning does a great disservice to the Pacers' effort throughout the series. As we pointed out early on, this series was defined by small game to game adjustments. No team won consecutive games, and that is not an accident. They were both coached by highly intelligent men, the players on both sides understand how to follow schemes and work together, and neither team gets fazed when things don't go their way. Because of this, I tend to believe that if the series continued, there is a good chance that Indiana would have made some adjustments and won the next.
What happened exactly that killed the Pacers' shot at the Finals? Like every other game, the Heat adjusted to take away what the Pacers wanted to do. In order to do this, the Heat had to play their best defensive style, which aggressively traps at the point of attack but also is highly disciplined on the weak side of the court. To this point, you might ask, 'then why didn't the Heat do that every single game?' The answer is that it is really, really hard. However, when they get locked in, the defense is reminiscent of the 1996 Bulls.
Here is what Mike Prada wrote:
Unlike the other three teams in the conference finals, the Heat defend the pick-and-roll aggressively. Since they lack the behemoth big man that the other three teams possess (Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan), the Heat compensate by having their big-man defender jump out and double-team the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls. This leaves them vulnerable if the ball-handler is able to get the pass away, but Miami still manages to force a lot of turnovers when their traps are appropriately aggressive and their backside rotations are sound.
But the margin for error can be slim, and the style can be tiring. The Pacers, by contrast, can shut down teams by simply stationing Hibbert back in the paint on pick-and-rolls and having everyone else stay on their men. Miami's system requires more effort on everyone's part and more moving parts to be precise in all steps of the operation. When one player is slow on a rotation or one trap isn't hard enough, the Heat are put in scramble situations that are exactly the kind any offense wants to create. That explains why Miami's defense can be so inconsistent.
The Heat decided and/or realized that their best shot to win Game 7 was by applying this kind of defensive pressure to the Pacers. They had to change the game to their own liking, because for 7 games the Heat offense struggled. In fact, even in Game 7 their offense was not great. They shot under 40% for the game and after LeBron and Dwyane Wade (who finally played a competent game) there was little else to give them support. The Pacers defense did their job to the very end.
However, by the Heat taking the defense to the Pacers, and Indiana not having any viable solution to counter it, their game was to quickly become undone. Even after a quarter of play where Indy had the lead, 21-19, you could see the writing on the wall. They had committed 9 turnovers in that 1st quarter and surrendered 6 offensive boards to a team against whom they had dominated in the rebounding department. That amounted to 15 extra shots that the Heat had over Indiana, and over the course of 4 quarters, that differential would not be a sustainable form of play for winning. By the time we were mid-way through the 2nd quarter, the Pacers' chance was gone. The 2nd half was mere formality.
And so it ends for Indiana, who has given the Heat the best test they have had all season long. Major props goes to that squad for challenging the Heat despite a) a mediocre offensive game; and b) no bench to speak of. However, they showed the power of having an effective game plan and sticking to it. On another night where the Pacers had a better game 7 plan and the Heat are not quite so effective defensively, perhaps the Pacers are headed to the Finals. They leave in the sweet good night in a promising state though - their two best players in Roy Hibbert and Paul George are head and shoulders better than most other teams in the East. Re-sign David West, hope that Danny Granger recovers, and find some additional perimeter scoring, and the Pacers should find themselves back here next season as well.
We leave behind the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers, and quite painfully, 2.2 seconds. This play arguably made all the difference in the world.