NBA Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Indiana Pacers: 56-26

Miami Heat: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

Indiana Pacers: Andrew Bynum (broken)

Miami Heat: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)

Miami Heat: Offense: 109.0 (2nd in the NBA). Defense: 102.9 (11th in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How will the Heat match up?

The Pacers – admirably or stubbornly – do what they do. They’re going to be big, and they’re going to be methodical.

The Heat are much more flexible, and it will be on Erik Spoelstra to determine how he wants to structure lineups around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Maybe Miami goes small with Bosh at center and a stretch four – LeBron, Rashard Lewis or Shane Battier – to space the floor. That would ensure Roy Hibbert defends outside the paint, removing the anchor of Indiana’s defense and removing Hibbert from his comfort zone. However, it would also leave the Heat vulnerable defensively to Hibbert’s post-ups and make Miami pick its poison on whether LeBron doesn’t guard Paul George or David West. Any sign Hibbert has lost confidence to the point he can’t score regardless, this should become the preferred strategy.

On the other hand, the Heat could also go big to counter Hibbert and West. Greg Oden was signed to match up with Hibbert, though that went disastrously in their regular-season meeting meeting. Small sample? Yes. Worth another shot? Maybe. Probably, even. Chris Andersen is Miami’s most reliable big man outside of Bosh, and he’ll definitely play a major role in this series. But he’s 35 and hasn’t played 30 minutes in regulation in four years. There’s only so much he can do.

Udonis Haslem could split the difference.

Haslem is an extremely physical player who, despite being just 6-foot-8, can work on Hibbert. He also has a nice mid-range jumper to pull Hibbert from the paint, though not all the way to the 3-point arc. Haslem started in the first round against the Bobcats, and then he played just three minutes against the small-ball Nets.

Spoelstra is more than willing to change his rotations based on opponent.

It’s not just who plays, but when they play – especially Bosh. Bosh is a solid defender in the right matchups, but Hibbert – and, to a lesser extent, West – can beat him up inside. Ideally for the Heat, they won’t waste all Bosh’s energy in a losing defensive match up only have him spent offensively.

2) How much does homecourt advantage matter?

All season, the Pacers made their goal securing the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage. They’re so serious about beating Miami, they were looking for an edge since day one after losing a road Game 7 to the Heat last year.

Miami doesn’t take the regular season as seriously – see its record vs. Brooklyn in the regular season and postseason – and Indiana got the top seed it desired despite a late-season slide.

So, will all that work pay off?

In postseason series during the last four years, the Pacers are 4-0 with homecourt advantage and 1-3 without it. In individual games against Miami during the same span, the Pacers are 8-5 at home and 3-11 on the road.

It seems this should be important to Indiana.

Then again, the Pacers are 5-6 in their last 11 home games. Plus, in the Big Three era, the Heat are 11-1 with homecourt advantage and 2-0 without it in a series. They can win anywhere.

Maybe it will matter most as a mental reminder to the Pacers about why they worked so hard in the first place, potentially helping them summon some of the confidence they showed regularly early in the season and appears only occasionally now.

3) How hungry are the Pacers?

In 2012, Miami eliminated Indiana in six games in the second round. In 2013, Miami eliminated Indiana in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pacers are chomping at the bit, getting closer and closer to toppling the aging Heat.

From Miami’s perspective, keeping a hungry team at bay is hard. Yes, teams should – and generally do – give maximum effort at this point in the season. But when you’re coming from the position of power, there’s a lower threshold of energy you can reach once you get on the court.

The sensation of being corned and the desire to overcome a challenge are not easy to fake. The Pacers have it. The Heat have to fake it.

Since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, teams have met in three consecutive postseasons 22 times. The same team has won all three matchups just eight times. Five of those eight had Phil Jackson – the ultimate playoff motivator – as coach.

That leaves just three teams in 30 years that have beaten the same playoff opponent in three consecutive years without Jackson.

Could the Heat make it No. 4? They have a member of the one of the previous three – LeBron, whose Cavaliers beat the Wizards in 2006, 2007 and 2008. As usual, Miami’s demeanor will be defined by its megastar.

PREDICTION

The Pacers’ late collapse was very real, but also probably overblown. A good, but not elite, team is left in the rubble. It’s also a team designed specifically to match up with the Heat, Indiana could definitely overcome the quality gap between the teams.

The biggest potential variable is one that hopefully won’t be an issue at all – Wade’s health. If he goes down, this series loses a lot of prestige. He looks fine, but his knees are a constant concern and will be for the rest of his career. As long as Wade avoids injury, the Heat will just be too much.

Heat in 6

Report: Grizzlies moving toward keeping J.B. Bickerstaff as coach

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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From the moment Robert Pera opted to retain control of the Grizzlies and end a prolonged ownership saga, it seemed interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff would remain Memphis’ coach.

Lo and behold…

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Bickerstaff did a decent job before the Grizzlies started tanking. But that was a small a sample, and his prior work as Rockets interim coach was uninspiring.

To be fair to Bickerstaff, those were both difficult situations. He’s an experienced assistant who might be ready for this challenge.

To be less fair to Bickerstaff, this looks like Memphis taking the cheap route. The Grizzlies didn’t appear to conduct much of a coaching search, if any. Nor has Bickerstaff been mentioned with other openings. It probably won’t cost as much to hire him as it would a more-established option.

Memphis seems to be operating under the belief that a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will right the ship next season. And they might. But given the age and injury history of those two, I wouldn’t assume they stay healthy and productive all season. Even if they do, they’d have to carry an underwhelming supporting cast – with limited room for upgrade this summer – in a deep Western Conference.

The Grizzlies want Bickerstaff, who’d be a first-time non-interim head coach, leading that team trying to win now? That doesn’t seem like the right risk-reward balance – at least until considering his salary, and even then.

Rumor: 76ers increasingly confident about signing LeBron James

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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LeBron James-76ers rumors have been mainstream for the better part of the year.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

I now fully understand why whispers about the Philadelphia 76ers and their growing behind-the-scenes confidence that they can woo LeBron to Philly this summer are getting louder.

Why shouldn’t they be increasingly confident? Led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers have already won a playoff series. The Cavaliers are mired in a tight first-round series with the Pacers, and LeBron’s supporting cast has mostly stunk.

This has the makings of LeBron’s previous free agencies – when he left barren Cleveland for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat in 2010, when he left aging Miami for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love with the Cavaliers in 2014. Whatever motivations and narratives attached to LeBron’s decisions, he has left sinking teams for better-positioned ones.

The 76ers are good enough to fit that. They also have the cap flexibility to acquire him without sacrificing roster strength.

That LeBron has positioned himself as a mentor to Simmons – who shares an agent, Rich Paul, with LeBron – would only make signing with Philadelphia easier. LeBron could sell the narrative of teaching and grooming Simmons. LeBron, who cares about his legacy, must explain why he’s again leaving his hometown team in a way that won’t alienate everyone – not easy considering his homecoming message upon his return. Working first-hand with his protégé would look understandable, maybe even commendable.

All that said, growing confidence could be going from a 1% chance to a 10% chance. That’d be a 10-fold increase while leaving Philadelphia a big underdog.

LeBron’s free agency is still a huge unknown – including, at least in part, to LeBron himself. But I believe he has already started to consider options, even if he hasn’t made up his mind. And when that happens, signs could emerge behind the scenes. Perhaps, the 76ers have a read on those.

Or maybe they’re seeing what we’re all seeing: The 76ers are rising while the Cavs are just trying to keep their heads above water. Which situation would LeBron choose?

Victor Oladipo on his final shot: “It was a goaltend”

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Ultimately, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report will back up Victor Oladipo — it was a goaltend.

With the score tied 95-95 and just six seconds left in the game Wednesday night, Oladipo attacked LeBron James in isolation, and like so many before him thought he was past LeBron only to have a chase down block from behind end his bid — except video replays shows Oladipo laid the ball off the backboard a fraction of a second before LeBron blocked it. That makes it a goaltend, a defender cannot block a shot that has already touched the backboard. Check out the slow-mo video.

The officials didn’t call it that way on the court, and the play is only eligible for video review if a goaltend is called (to be fair to the officials, that was an incredibly close play that is very difficult to call in real time). From there, LeBron went on to hit the dramatic game-winning three that gave Cleveland the win and a 3-2 series lead.

After the game, Oladipo and his teammates were pissed about the no-call.

“I got a step on him,” Oladipo said via the Associated Press. “I felt like I even got grabbed on the way to the rim, tried to shoot a layup, it hit the backboard, then he blocked it. It was a goaltend. It’s hard to even speak on it. It just sucks, honestly. It really sucks. Even though we fought our way back, we tied the game up, that layup was huge.

“Give him credit where credit is due. The three was big-time. Definitely huge. But who’s to say they even run that play? We don’t know what happens. It’s unfortunate. It really sucks that they missed that.”

LeBron didn’t see it that way.

“Of course I didn’t think it was a goaltend. I try to make plays like that all the time and I mean he made a heck of a move, got me leaning right and he went left and I just tried to use my recovery speed and get back up there and make a play on the ball. And I was able to make a play.”

We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says, but to my eyes that was a goaltend, it clearly comes off the backboard.

That call is also not why Indiana lost. If Pacers’ fans want to place blame, Oladipo going 2-of-15 on the night was a bigger issue. Or Darren Collison having an off night and going 1-of-5 from the floor. Or maybe it’s just the fact that LeBron James is the best player in the game and can drop 44 on the Pacers — including the three that may well have made the goaltend moot anyway — and Indiana can’t stop it. One call late does not by itself decide a 48-minute game.

But it was a goaltend.

Giannis Antetokounmpo puts it on himself to be more aggressive in Bucks-Celtics Game 6

AP Photo/Morry Gash
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Giannis Antetokounmpo was criticized after Game 5 of Milwaukee’s Eastern Conference series against Boston for not doing more, particularly on the offensive end.

The harshest critic: Antetokounmpo, himself.

He took only 10 field-goal attempts, his third-lowest total of the entire season. Antetokounmpo still had a brilliant stat line, finishing only one assist shy of a triple-double, but the Bucks lost 92-87 and now go back to Milwaukee trailing the first-round matchup 3-2.

Game 6 of the Celtics-Bucks series is the lone matchup on the Thursday night NBA schedule.

“Game 6, I’ve got to come out and be more aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s on me. I had open shots, but they weren’t my shots so I didn’t feel comfortable taking them. … I’ve got to be more aggressive, make more plays because definitely, my teammates need me.”

It’s not like he was choosing to not be involved.

The Celtics got Marcus Smart back for Game 5, and Boston is much better defensively when he’s on the floor. Open looks seem to happen far more infrequently when Smart is out there, and the Bucks must solve that riddle or else their season is about to end.

Smart wasn’t the only defensive hero for Boston in Game 5. The Celtics put Semi Ojeleye on Antetokounmpko, and it worked as well as Boston could have hoped.

“Giannis is a heck of a player,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re not going to be perfect against him. You’re not going to hold him down by any means. He makes plays for other people, he’s very unselfish … but we just felt like we needed a little bit more ball pressure overall, and so that was the decision to go smaller.”

If Antetokounmpko doesn’t come up bigger Thursday, it’ll be Boston going to the second round.

Here’s some of what to know going into Game 6:

CELTICS AT BUCKS

Boston leads 3-2. Game 6, 8 p.m. EDT, TNT

NEED TO KNOW: Since 2002, there have been 29 NBA teams with at least one postseason series win to their credit. The lone exception: The Bucks. It’s been 17 years since the Bucks advanced to the second round, and the Celtics are on the cusp of adding another year to Milwaukee’s wait. So far in the series, Milwaukee has outscored Boston 520-519 – which would indicate that it’s been a super-close matchup. That’s not the reality. There have been wild ebbs and flows, with one team leading by 16 points at some point in each of the last four games.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Free throws. Boston is 99 for 130 in the series from the line, while Milwaukee is 68 for 100. The Bucks have been called for 30 more fouls in the series, 124-94 – which works out to six more per game.

PRESSURE IS ON: Clearly, the Bucks. They’re facing elimination, of course, so there’s the pressure. Antetokounmpko was on the Milwaukee team that won two elimination games against Chicago in 2015 (before the Bucks eventually lost that series in six games). And he also remembers the sting of last season, when the Bucks went home for Game 6 trailing Toronto 3-2 and wound up letting a pair of late leads slip in what became a season-ending loss.

INJURY UPDATE: Getting Smart back was a rare bit of good news for Boston in this injury-marred season, one where the Celtics have been without Gordon Hayward since opening night and ultimately lost Kyrie Irving for the playoffs. Smart hadn’t played in about six weeks after tearing a ligament in his right thumb, but was a clear difference-maker for the Celtics in Game 5.

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball