MIAMI -- No matter how dysfunctional and inexplicably inconsistent the Pacers have been over the last two months, the Heat know when it comes to push and shove -- literally -- they still most overcome arguably the best defense in the league to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals.
While the Eastern Conference top-seeded Pacers were stretched to seven games against the sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks in the first round and needed six games to down the upstart Washington Wizards in the semifinals, they still lead all playoff teams in fewest points allowed per game (96.8) and defensive field-goal percentage (40.4).
They were also No. 1 in the regular season in defensive field-goal percentage and they held the Heat to an average of 88.5 points in four games, second fewest output by Miami against any opponent (79.7 vs. the Bucks).
Spearheaded by enigmatic, 7-foot-2, 290-pound center Roy Hibbert, the Pacers are long, strong and have a not-so-secret weapon in assistant coach Nate McMillan, a two-time All-NBA second-team defensive selection.
“Hibbert is very, very good in protecting the rim,” Heat superstar LeBron James said after practice at AmericanAirlines Arena Saturday morning. “They have a lot of two-way guys; George Hill is very solid; Paul George is one of the best two-way guys we have in the league. Lance Stephenson is very good.
“Their [team] is predicated around defense. I’ve been around Nate McMillan with the Olympic team and I know how passionate he is about the defensive side of things. People never bring up his name, but I know he’s the catalyst behind it.”
While Hibbert and his regular-season 2.3 blocks-per-game often dissuade or alter James and Dwyane Wade’s forays to the basket, Hill, the long-armed Stephenson and 6-9 George patrol the 3-point line like an army of Spider-Men.
The Pacers led the Eastern Conference in three-point field-goal defense (34.5%) during the season and are fourth in the postseason (32.9%).
“They’re well-drilled; they know what they’re doing and where they’re trying to direct you,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They have experience; they have great size. Hibbert does change a lot of things at the rim so you have to work the offense, do it at a pace, and spacing has to be very precise and the ball has to move.
“All those things have to be working together, otherwise they can get you in some tough situations.”
The Heat have made 9.1 3-pointers per game in the playoffs, most among the final four teams remaining, and the bulk of that credit goes to 6-11 Chris Bosh, who has made 17 of 35 three-pointers at a sizzling 48.6% clip, best among players who have taken more than 25 attempts.
“If I’m matched up against [Hibbert], his strength is down low and my strength is moving around, so it’s going to be a constant battle of imposing our strengths on each other,” Bosh said. “I’m going to play my game, whether that’s spread or down low.”
Rapid ball movement will be essential for the Heat to advance, so James in his role as point-forward and starting point guard Mario Chalmers will shoulder the load.
“They try to keep us to one side of the floor and do a good job of getting back on defense,” said Chalmers, whose 37 assists to just 10 turnovers is the 10th most efficient ratio in the postseason. “They have a lot of length and toughness, so we have to keep the ball moving and everyone involved.”
Stephenson vs. Wade
Wade and Stephenson have a history of scuffling with each other on the court, including earlier this season when the Pacers’ emotional guard was ejected in the fourth quarter of Indiana’s 84-83 victory.
On Saturday, Stephenson stirred the pot when he told reporters that he’d try to make Wade’s “knee flare up.”
“I think his knee is messed up, so I’ve got to be extra aggressive and make him run and have him running around and make his knee flare up or something,” Stephenson said. “I’ll do anything as much as possible.
“It’s just basketball. If I see D. Wade walking in the street, I won’t try to get him. It’s just basketball and just playing hard against each other. We both have a goal and neither of us is going to allow that to happen easily. I don’t got no problems with them, but on the court there’s no friends.”
Wade, who spoke to the media before Stephenson’s remarks hit the Internet, was asked if it was difficult to maintain his composure against Stephenson.
“During a long series there are guys who aggravate each other,” Wade said. “It’s just about who can stay in their game more. Every now and then I get into certain things, but I really don’t.
“When I feel myself getting out of it, whether it’s a player or a call, especially in the playoffs, I try to snap out of it fast and get back to what wins.”
Heat players couldn’t remember ever being this healthy as they enter the Eastern Conference finals, and James noticed that other teams weren’t as fortunate with Thunder All-Star forward Serge Ibaka [thigh] out for the rest of the playoffs and Spurs star point guard Tony Parker hobbled by a hamstring pull.
“A little bit of both,” James said of his concern. “Obviously, I only care about us, but for our league I never want anybody to go down, especially this time of year.”