Matching up with the Miami Heat will be no easy task for the Indiana Pacers in the NBA playoffs. Game 1 of their first-round series is Tuesday.
That was put on full display during Indiana’s 114-92 loss to Miami during the seeding games. For Indiana to achieve its first playoff series win in the Nate McMillan era, overcoming such circumstances will be crucial.
Receiving a genuine star level impact from T.J. Warren is going to be essential for the Pacers to remain within striking distance in this series. He set the tone for Indiana in the seeding games averaging 31 points per game. This was intriguing to see considering a lack of a reliable primary scoring option plagued Indiana during last year’s playoff matchup with the Boston Celtics — ending in a 4-0 series sweep.
Against the Heat, Warren struggled to provide the sensational scoring impact that put him on the national landscape. He was held to just 12 points against Miami while shooting a mere 5-of-14 (35.7%) from the field and 2-of-6 (33.3%) from deep. He dealt with plantar fasciitis and it kept him sidelined for the team’s final two seeding games — currently, he faces a questionable status for Tuesday's Game 1, but ensures he will be ready to play.
“I’m just taking care of it every day," Warren said, via the team’s official website. "Anybody who’s familiar with plantar fasciitis, it’s pretty tough but the trainers have been doing a good job of getting me up for treatment and just being proactive with it. I’m gonna be good either way. I’m gonna be ready.”
A critical reason in Warren’s struggles is that seeking out switching from the defense is not something that works against the Heat often — Bam Adebayo makes this particularly challenging. Adebayo has the mobility to be able to challenge a perimeter player looking to create a step-back or pull-up jumper out in space while possessing the foot speed and timing to pressure finishes.
Simply trying to run basic high pick-and-roll sequences and operating out of dribble handoffs near the top of the key isn’t going to be nearly enough for the Pacers against the Heat. Indiana will need McMillan to showcase more creativity within the team’s half-court offense. That sentiment has been a commonality heading into a McMillan-coached playoff series, though, but he sounds confident.
“We really started preparing and having our guys pull information from the regular season back before we even entered the bubble,” McMillan said, via Forbes Sports’ Tony East. “We feel like when we go into the playoffs, we’ve gotten the information from all of our scouting to best help us with what we want to do.”
The Pacers will need to embrace the spacing that comes with the four-out personnel they are currently embracing instead of trying to generate switches. This will require shot creators like Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo to be prepared to execute with consistently on off-dribble jumpers. If that doesn’t happen, it will be tough for Indiana to overcome.
There won’t be much for clean lanes to the basket for the Pacers on dribble penetration with Adebayo on the floor. Miami rotates at a high-level as a unit defensively and is often ready to help in the paint. Looking to stagger their playing time of the team’s top perimeter players could help generate favorable stretches to attack, but overall, stretching the floor will be paramount to potential success.
“They’re aggressive. They have got good defenders on the ball, one-on-one defenders. They have active hands,” McMillan said, via Forbes. “They challenge every pass, they challenge the dribble. So you have to be strong with the ball. You have to do a good job of setting screens to free up the ball. ... They are a scrappy team defensively with [Jimmy] Butler out there, [Jae] Crowder, ]Andre] Iguodala, they have a lot of guys that can defend and get pressure on the ball.”
It has been a challenge for the Pacers’ on-ball defenders to stay in front of speedy playmakers like Goran Dragic. This is a combination of Dragic’s own ability, but also the Heat’s offensive system prioritizing active off-ball movement in key spots to force attention to key spots on the floor —whether it be the weak-side dunker’s spot or relocating from the corner to the wing. Ball watching is something that simply can’t occur, and communication is key.
“The main thing is communicating,” Justin Holiday, via Forbes. “We [need to be] having a lot of communication with the back side, letting guys know you’re there. But also, yelling out cutters, yelling out X-outs, different things like that. It helps our team tremendously on the defensive end... it’s easier said then done.”
The Heat does have some genuine sharpshooters that can’t be left alone in spot-up situations, making their offensive principles all the more difficult to combat. In fact, Duncan Robinson, in particular, can’t be afforded any space to get a shot off coming off pindown screens and quick handoff exchanges either. For the players that aren’t efficient shooting threats, the Pacers must play off them and try to provide more help in the paint.
There will need to be a legitimate balance established by the Pacers defensively when it comes helping in the paint and on the glass. Obviously, leaving knockdown shooters open is a bad idea, but there are less than stellar spot-up threats like Adebayo and Butler that Indiana could play off of in such situations.
The Heat appears to hold a legitimate edge in this series and likely will come out on top. Not having Domantas Sabonis in the lineup hurts the Pacers’ chances, of course. But regardless, Miami checks most of the boxes when stacking up with a healthy Indiana squad, nevertheless.