MIAMI -- For three straight years, we've seen the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers lock horns in the playoffs like two bighorn sheep. The Pacers have gone head first into the match-up with brute strength and size while the Heat have been more cunning and agile with the way they attack using small ball lineups. Both teams are looking to make the other uncomfortable and concede to their style of play.
What we got in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals was a great showing of both styles. The Pacers went inside early, amidst a sea of sloppy play on both ends. Roy Hibbert outscored Miami for a healthy chunk of the first quarter and it looked like the Heat could struggle with the size of the Indiana lineup once again. But much like we've seen when these two teams match up in the playoffs, one style was going to break while the other seized opportunity at the right time.
The Heat's small ball lineup in the fourth quarter exemplified their willingness to stick with the process of what they like to do. Erik Spoelstra will consistently give sound bytes discussing "our game" when vaguely describing the tactics in which Miami wants to employ. Spread the floor, open up driving lanes, and have your role players ready to hit the opponent with what they're unable to defend. That's the joy of having a few stars on your team; you get to draw the attention away from the role players carrying daggers in big moments.
Ray Allen has done it time and again to opponents. He's delivered big shots in bigger moments, overwhelming a scrambling defense with one last rotation they weren't prepared to make. As he dropped 13 points in the fourth quarter while the Heat opened up the game and took control, it seemed all too familiar for what happens when these two teams face each other.
“You can ask anybody in that locker room. There are so many years of pain that he caused a lot of us," Spoelstra said following the Heat's 99-87 victory. "It's great to have him on our side. He's inflicted a lot of that pain, there's a lot of scar tissue there for a lot of us. Seeing him run around and break your back in the fourth quarter, that's why we went after him so hard. It's not just the makes though. I think that's obviously what everybody's looking at right now. You see him going 4-for-4, but it's the spacing. It's the movement.”
The spacing and the movement were on full display during his first made shot of the game with 8:23 left in the game. The Heat had a two-point lead and were looking to exploit the Pacers going big. With David West chasing Allen around the perimeter and screens, the Heat had a fantastic chance to open up the floor.
The Heat overloaded their stars with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to one side of the floor with Chris Bosh setting a screen for Allen on the other side. Allen set his feet as he received the pass from Mario Chalmers, and whipped the ball through the nylon. The floodgates would open and Allen would go 4-of-4 from 3-point range in the final period to help Miami go on a 21-8 run from 8:21 to 2:49.
Allen was surprised to see West defending him after he subbed into the game with 8:37 left and probably knew he would have chances to make the Pacers pay for going big.
"Whenever I see a big on me, I salivate," the all-time leading 3-point shooter said following his 16-point performance.
This is the danger of the Pacers going big when the Heat are looking to spread the floor. They have to defend you inside, but they're used to playing small and adjusting for that. The team going big has to wade through the discomfort of having slower players defending the perimeter, which can lead to wide-open 3-pointers for the most successful shooter in NBA history. And when you're not making them pay on one end with the size differential, they're making you pay on the other.
"It's extremely difficult to guard, especially when you're playing big against them," Pacers' coach Frank Vogel said after the game. "We haven't been hurt quite like that with that kind of clashing styles, which is what this series is about.”
In 2012, the Heat outlasted a Pacers team still trying to get its feet wet. Miami didn't have much success from outside (28.9 percent from three). In the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat managed to connect on 38.0 percent of their 3-pointers while Allen helped them spread the floor against a bigger, slower team. In this year's series against Indiana, the Heat finally got on track in Game 3 with a 10-of-18 performance to boost their series success rate to 39.3 percent.
The Pacers will insist on using their size against the smaller Heat team, but they can't be so bold as to put bigger, slower players on Ray Allen. He's been inflicting pain on opponents for years and even the biggest foes have plenty of scar tissue from his long-range attacks.