1. Given the breadth of his responsibilities on both ends of the floor, Bam Adebayo is functionally Miami’s most important player. In terms of the gigantic offensive load Tyrese Haliburton carries, you can say the same about him for Indiana.
And so with both players out, Saturday night was a story of how teams adjust without the players who give them their beat-by-beat identity.
In the first half, the Pacers, who opened the game 1-of-10 from the field, were the ones who found a way to play true to who they are and want to be. Miami had little trouble scoring — the Pacers aren’t great defensively with or without Haliburton — as they lived in the paint, shooting 8-of-16 from three and getting to every pet action, whether behind-the-scenes lobs to Jimmy Butler or downhill passes to Duncan Robinson, they wished. But without Adebayo, the paint was wide open. Even when the Pacers outside of Aaron Nesmith (3-of-4 from three in the first half) struggled from deep, they kept turning the ball over until they found a half-point advantage and went all out on drive after drive. , finishing 21-of-29 in the paint. It wasn’t quite the pretty game they played with Haliburton, but it was with the same efficiency (127.5 offensive rating) that they kept the game tied, 65-65, despite Miami mostly playing with the lead.
In the first five minutes of the third, Indiana played the best individual defense it had played in this two-game series – every paint attempt was contested, every shift was clean, every action had a defender attached to the ball – and with their shots. Eventually, the result was a 15-2 run and a 10-point lead. Back to both teams’ turnovers after that, only this time with Miami playing from behind much like they did in the first three quarters of Thursday’s game. The Pacers by eight enter the fourth, wondering how they would close without their closer.
Miami went back to Jaime Jaquez Jr. in the post to open the fourth, as they so often have late, especially without Tyler Herro available, but Butler would bounce back early after nine minutes just as Indiana extended the lead to 12 on a corner three from Bruce Brown. Butler had little trouble scoring, it was just a matter of getting stops. After closing to six, Miami was down 11 again after just two possessions without a score. Not enough stops in the end, Indiana won 144-129, a game that was much closer than that until the final five minutes.
2. The Pacers made the threes they didn’t make Thursday, hitting 16-of-32 — Miami was nearly as good from deep, 12-of-25, albeit at a lower volume — and that was a big reason they things out. to reach before the final buzzer, but the story of the past two games, especially in the minutes Adebayo didn’t play, was that Indiana couldn’t be stopped from getting into the paint.
It didn’t matter who it was, whether Nesmith (20 points) and Bennedict Mathurin (16 points on 10 shots) early or Bruce Brown (7-of-9 in the paint, 30 points on 16 shots) and TJ McConnell (8- of-9 on upper paint jumpers, 2-of-2 in the mid-range for 20 points) throughout, the Pacers just kept getting into the paint, running play after play until daylight came and burst through those windows no matter how many HEAT players who had their arms in the way. After scoring 74 in the paint Thursday with Haliburton running the show, Indiana followed that up with 76 tonight without their engine.
The Pacers then played to their identity on both ends without their star, posting a 148.5 offensive rating and giving up 133 per possession. 100 at the other end. And the HEAT, without Adebayo, didn’t, allowing paint score after paint score — along with 20 in transition — when the central tenet of Spoelstra’s defense limits those very opportunities. There’s a reason Adebayo is so heralded for his defense—his skills extend far beyond his perimeter switching, as he’s as responsible for keeping the ball out of the paint as any other elite center in the league.
3. One of the most interesting wrinkles from this two-game series was Rick Carlisle’s decision to have Obi Toppin (22 points on eight shots), Indiana’s apparent starting power forward, defend Butler when the two were in the game. Now, Miami is generally positionless outside of their starting centers, so teams that start two bigger players have to put the other somewhere, but Carlisle could have easily had Toppin on Haywood Highsmith — who left the game early with back spasms and didn’t return — or Caleb Martin. Instead, he chose to follow in the wake of what others have done before by sticking his most mobile length on Butler and forcing him to find a way over or under. Toppin is no Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he has long arms and was generally Indiana’s most disciplined defender at Butler.
It was therefore interesting that Butler (33 points on 23 shots) never tried to beat Topping from the outside. As Jaquez Jr. said after Thursday’s game, the game plan was to beat Indiana inside, and Butler took that to heart, wedged his shoulders into Topping to sneak around and touch the restricted area. Credit Toppin in this ongoing game for not fouling and relying on his length to challenge, often getting Butler to lay up without a dribble, but also credit Butler for his creativity, always happy to wait on the defender’s patience until he can find a window to a hard finish. This won’t be the last time a coach puts length on Butler, and at least in this instance, Butler showed that he ran Toppin off multiple screens down the stretch to get a step, if not a shift, where no one else could avoid to defile him that there are ways to beat these tasks with the right angles.