PHILADELPHIA — The Pacers have exposed the Heat's weakness, and it is not that LeBron James is unwilling to take the last shot or that Erik Spoelstra is overmatched or any of the other explanations thrown at us by pundits who form their opinions after watching only the final 90 seconds of a basketball game.
The Pacers have battered the Heat in the last two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with old-fashioned inside play, led by center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West. The Pacers have ignored the Heat's dominant armor on the wings to slice into the soft underbelly of the post, and the effects have been disastrous for the heavily favored Heat.
The common belief is that the Heat, given their talented top three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, cannot be beaten on the court. Rather, extraneous factors need to creep in for them to lose, which is why Wade's tiff with Spoelstra on Thursday was the most talked-about highlight from Miami's loss in Game 3.
This series smashed that thinking, however, because on-court reasons are exactly why the Heat are down 2-1 in the series, just as on-court reasons were the reason the Heat lost to the Mavericks in last year's NBA Finals.
With Bosh sidelined with a strained abdominal muscle, the Heat started Dexter Pittman at center on Thursday. Pittman lasted all of three minutes. Joel Anthony, probably third on the pecking order of Heat players fans love to criticize — behind James and Bosh — actually had a decent offensive game with 10 points in 27 minutes. Ronny Turiaf had a team-high eight rebounds in less than 17 minutes.
Regardless of their moderate statistical success, Pittman, Anthony, Turiaf and Udonis Haslem, with James essentially playing power forward, is a laughable front line to march out against Hibbert and West. The Heat may "need more" than James' 22 points and seven rebounds, and they certainly need more than Wade's five points on 2-for-13 shooting, but Game 2 revealed that even when those two play well, it is wasted due to the team's lack of depth in the post.
Hibbert had 19 points and 18 rebounds in Game 3, while West had 14 and nine. In the last two games, the Pacers wore down the Heat down low, although at first glance the statistics do not reflect that. The Heat made 24 field goals inside the restricted area to the Pacers' 26 in games two and three, and Miami shot a slightly better percentage down low.
Nothing happens in a vacuum in basketball, though. The Pacers' commitment to their post game generated 57 shots at the rim in those two games, forcing the Heat to help. The result has been wide-open looks for the Pacers' guards, who shot 11-for-29 from three and precisely 50 percent on corner threes in the last two games. George Hill was 3-for-4 from deep in Game 3, picking up right where he left off as a member of the Spurs. The Heat tried to play catch-up by taking way more 3-pointers than the Pacers in games two and three, but without the same post presence as the Pacers to create quality looks, the Heat shot an atrocious 5-for-36 from beyond the arc.
The two people who will receive the most blame in fact might be the two people who deserve the most credit for the Heat. Spoelstra has convinced James to assume a new role at the "four" and James has tried to become a true post player in a way that he was not during the regular season. That will not matter, though, because the image of this series for many fans will be Mario Chalmers, not James, taking the big shot at the end of Game 2, or of Wade telling Spoelstra to get out of his face.
The true image of this series is much more understated. It is the image of Hibbert, reaching into his locker after Game 3, pulling out his cell phone and reportedly reading a congratulatory text message from an admiring Tim Duncan. One of the greatest low-post players in the history of the NBA is watching the Pacers against the Heat, and he likes what he sees.