An Indiana Pacers win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals would have completed a remarkable upset. The Miami Heat won 66 regular-season games with a +7.9 point differential this season, compared to 49 and +4.0 for Indiana. And while the Heat start three Top-5 picks, only one Pacers starter (Paul George at No. 10) was even taken in the lottery. Every team in the NBA had chances to select Roy Hibbert (17), David West (18), George Hill (26) and Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson (40). How were they able to go toe-to-toe with one of the most talented teams in NBA history? Size.
Size is the only thing that really bothers Miami. When they surround the Big Three with shooters, they are impossible to defend. You beat them by punishing their small lineups, forcing them to shrink the floor by playing bigger personnel. The Pacers followed the blueprint laid out by the Mavericks in 2011 with Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion. The best small-ball team will struggle against opponents that can beat them up down low. The NBA game has become more perimeter-oriented, but having the bigger team never goes out of style.
The pattern in LeBron James’ playoff defeats is striking. It takes a Defensive Player of the Year manning the middle to beat him: Ben Wallace (2006), Tim Duncan (2007), Kevin Garnett (2008, 2010), Dwight Howard (2009) and Chandler (2011). You could see the dynamic playing out against Indiana. Through the first six games, Miami took 33 percent of their shots in the paint with Hibbert in and 42 percent with him out. Even LeBron finds it difficult to finish over the top of a 7’2, 275 center with a 7’4+ wingspan. If he’s allowed to run a conga line to the front of the rim, i.e. the end of Game 1, forget it.
Cutting off LeBron and Wade’s driving lanes is crucial to slowing down Miami. That means having big wing defenders who can stay in front of them. In 2011, Dallas had Jason Kidd (6’4, 210), DeShawn Stevenson (6’5, 220) and Shawn Marion (6’7, 230). One reason moving JJ Barea into the starting lineup was a key adjustment in that series was that it staggered the minutes of the Mavericks best and worst (Barea and Jason Terry) perimeter defenders. Indiana had George (6’9, 210), Stephenson (6’5, 230) and Sam Young (6’6, 225). None can be blown up at the point of attack.
The difference between the Pacers and the Mavericks came on the other side of the ball. Kidd and Stevenson could consistently punish a defense for leaving them open, while Marion’s cutting and finishing ability prevented his defender from leaving him. In contrast, Miami could close out short on Stephenson and Young. In one memorable sequence in Game 7, a wide-open Young shot an airball over the rim, creating an easy fast break. Having shooters on the perimeter is the only way to draw out the Heat defense and expose their weakness upfront.
Of course, that still requires having big men capable of punishing smaller defenders. The Pacers had two post-up threats (Hibbert and West) while the Mavericks had one of the best 7’0 scorers of all time (Dirk) and another 7’0 (Chandler) who could attack the offensive glass. Either way, the key is players too big for LeBron to handle in a 1-on-1 matchup. When he plays against teams whose offense runs through a smaller player, whether it’s Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose or Kevin Durant, he’s a threat to bottle them up on the defensive side of the floor.
Even in the modern NBA, teams with multiple big men can dictate tempo. This postseason, Indiana and Memphis punched above their weight, thanks to a two-post system that bothered small-ball teams. In a seven-game series, teams that want to spread the floor and go small have to adjust if they’re facing two effective big men. What’s the key to slowing down jump-shooters? Attacking their legs on defense and slowing the pace of the game. While the Pacers and Grizzlies were ultimately undone by a lack of perimeter shooting, they still lost on their own terms.
Against the Thunder, Erik Spoelstra was able to get away with putting Shane Battier on Kendrick Perkins. Against the Pacers, there was nowhere to hide Battier. Without that extra three-point shooter stretching out the defense, Indiana made LeBron and Wade score over the top of long, athletic and physical defenders. LeBron is LeBron, but Wade looked every one of his 31 years. Surround a 7’0 who can score with enough shooters and you will have a high-level offense. Conversely, put athletes around a 7’0 who can defend and you will have an elite defense.
The Pacers got uneven play from their guards and nothing from their bench and they still pushed the Heat to the brink. The question for the NBA Finals will be whether Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter can dictate the style of the game as much as Hibbert and West. Splitter isn’t as effective a 1-on-1 scorer and can’t stretch the floor like West. Will Gregg Popovich play him 35+ minutes a night against Miami? Will a 37-year old Duncan be able to protect the rim as well as Hibbert? If San Antonio establishes a clear edge in the paint, they have the perimeter firepower to kill Miami.
Regardless of what happens in the Finals, the lesson of these playoffs is clear. If you don’t have LeBron or Kevin Durant, a two-way center is still the quickest way to playoff success. Here were the centers of the other six teams in the second round: Hibbert, Duncan, Chandler, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol and Andrew Bogut. A great center will always be the apex predator of the NBA food chain. Only when they aren’t around can different types of players rule. If Yao Ming, Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden were healthy, the NBA would be a very different place.
Going forward, the health of the next generation of big men will be one of the most important storylines of the 2010’s. The Cavaliers and the Wizards have multiple Top 5 picks, but the real young teams to watch are the Jazz and the Pistons. Detroit has Andre Drummond (6’11 285) and Greg Monroe (6’11 250); Utah has Enes Kanter (6’11 270) and Derrick Favors (6’10 250). All four are under 25. As those two duos mature, there will be no way to go small against them. At the end of the day, LeBron is 28 and Durant is 24. For everyone else, going bigger is the best way to even the odds.