|Heat forward LeBron James and Pacers forward Danny Granger have butted heads multiple times. (Getty Images)|
Previewing Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers on Sunday.
1. Where We're At: The Pacers lead the series 2-1 after a resounding Game 3 victory on Thursday night. The teams had two off days between games, a luxury compared to the back-to-backs being played in the Western Conference. In a surprise move, the Heat opted to cancel practice on Friday, one day after All-Star guard Dwyane Wade and coach Erik Spoelstra got into an in-game argument.
The Heat brushed off questions of any internal discord but they looked like a broken team down the stretch of Game 3, getting outscored 51-32 in the second half and eventually pulling the starters before all was said and done. Miami has struggled to generate offense since losing All-Star forward Chris Bosh to an abdominal injury in Game 1 and the talk after a 2-for-13 shooting performance in Game 3 was that Wade could be injured as well. Meanwhile, LeBron James has played heavy minutes, looking at times like the one-man team martyr that he was for so many seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers have defended him well in recent games and it's not clear that he can solve the puzzle by himself, no matter how well he plays.
Bottom line: the Heat are two losses away from taking two steps backwards from their 2011 Finals appearance. If they bomb out in the conference semifinals, Spoelstra's seat will get hot and the "Big 3" roster plan will get a full re-assessment
2. The Big Number: 32.1. That's the combined field goal percentage of all Miami Heat players not named LeBron James during Games 2 and 3 (36-for-112). Wade's struggles on Thursday have gotten the microscope treatment but the larger issue is that no one aside from James is shooting the ball well on a consistent basis. The wing trio of Mike Miller, Shane Batttier and James Jones has been putrid and the remaining big men -- Udonis Haslem, Ronny Turiaf, Joel Anthony and Dexter Pittman -- all lack reliable offensive skills (aside from uncontested dunking). That leaves James, Wade and Chalmers to carry the weight.
So far, Indiana's team defense has succeeded in limiting their effectiveness by contesting perimeter shots, sending extra help when they drive and dominating the rebounding battle. Pacers forward Danny Granger has made it clear he will go toe-to-toe with James as best he can and guard Paul George has made up for some hit-or-miss offense by doing well to frustrate Wade.
3. Key Adjustment: The move to watch will be Miami's starting lineup. Spoelstra has used a different lineup in each of the three games so far and his Game 3 concoction was atrocious. The Heat got down 11-2 as the seldom-used Pittman looked totally out of his league. Why was he in there? Who knows. The best explanation is Spoelstra over-thinking things but he missed both his shots, immediately looked winded and was pulled after just three minutes, never heard from again. Not exactly an awe-inspiring rotation juggle. Where does he go from here? Who can predict the moves of a mind that's this mad?
4. The Big Story: Indiana smells blood and they're not being shy about it. They celebrated on Miami's court after Game 2, they've mixed it up in some chippy situations, reserve guard Lance Stephenson had the audacity to flash the "choke" sign in James' direction and Granger told reporters on Saturday that he's not afraid of James. Prior to the series, Pacers coach Frank Vogel called out the Heat for "flopping." Put all of that together and you have a serious test of Miami's will. James did his best to rally the troops at the end of Game 3 -- informing his teammates that it was "just one game" -- but he knows better than anyone what an uphill battle he's facing without Bosh. The question for Sunday: Did Indiana count its chickens before they hatched?