Is it possible the Indiana Pacers have been pulling a Verbal Kint on us this whole time, that Roy Hibbert’s three scoreless games in the playoffs so far have just been part of an elaborate con? Probably not. After all, this is an Indiana team that often struggles to smoothly execute even rudimentary offensive sets, instead relying on a stalwart defense that still led the league with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 96.7 despite a deep swoon dating back to the All-Star break. The Pacers are fundamentally built to punch you in the mouth.
Or, more specifically, they’re built to punch the Miami Heat in the mouth, and that’s just what they did in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday. Now, Game 1 is just Game 1, and it’s helpful to remember that the Heat are 4-0 in playoff series where they lose the first game in the Big Three era (although it’s also worth noting that since 1995, home teams winning the first game of a series are 21-4). But Indiana led wire to wire, jumping out to a 7-0 lead and never letting Miami closer than four after the first quarter.
The poor rebounding and ball movement that dogged the Pacers through the first and second rounds against the Hawks and Wizards evaporated and suddenly the ball was flying around the perimeter with direction and purpose. Every Pacers starter was in double figures by the end of the third quarter – a testament to their balanced scoring – while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the only such players for the Heat. Chris Bosh managed just nine points on 4-for-12 shooting and Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier were a combined 3-for-10.
The root of Miami’s problem wasn’t with the offense, though, but with the defense, as you can see in this pair of early defensive breakdowns by the Heat:
In both cases you can see Paul George drawing the attention of the Heat defense and opening up the floor for David West and Hibbert, respectively. In the first clip, James makes a rare defensive mistake by stepping out towards George after his pump fake gets Battier in the air, opening up a cut to the basket for West, whom George hits perfectly for the dunk. In the second clip, George comes off of Hibbert’s downscreen and draws Bosh, Hibbert’s defender. Bosh stays with George a beat too long and James doesn’t rotate to cut off Hibbert at the rim.
Add to this some solid individual defense on James by George (which rattled James at least a bit) and you have a recipe for a solid Pacers’ victory. The downside for Indiana? They played absolutely out of their gourds. In 28 minutes on the floor, the starting five had an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 141. The Los Angeles Clippers led the league with an offensive rating of 109.4 in the regular season. Indiana also shot 58.3 percent from 3-point range through three quarters when their season average was a middling 35.7 percent. For their part, the Heat shot 25 percent from distance through three. Don’t look for either of those marks to maintain as the series progresses.
Miami is the matchup this Indiana team was built for, but it’s entirely possible the greatest trick they pulled in the first game of the series was convincing the world they exist.
• Early in the fourth quarter, Chalmers gave C.J. Watson a pretty generous shove as Watson drove to the basket, earning himself a flagrant foul in the process. It was clearly a petulant foul born of frustration, but it’s also just the kind of thing that can set a tone for a series and even come back to hurt a team later.
• Less than two weeks after being fired as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, Mark Jackson made his return to the broadcast booth alongside Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy for Game 1. He showed that his form never left him, dropping an appraisal of a good post finish as a “grown-man move” early on. No “Mama, there goes that man” or “Hand down, man down,” but we’ll get there eventually.
• In the fourth quarter, LeBron James had a 4-point play, making a flailing shot after getting hit by Paul George going up. Through May 13 (68 playoff games), we’d had 21 4-point play opportunities, with players converting on 15 of them. Compare that to only six through 68 games of the playoffs last season. Something is definitely up.