The No. 4 seeded Indiana Pacers (45-28) will take on the No. 5 seeded Miami Heat (44-29) in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s the first postseason matchup between the two franchises since they dueled three consecutive years from 2012-2014.
Despite owning the lower seed, Miami (-325) is the favorite to advance—a result of the organizational pedigree (did someone say “#HeatCulture?”) and Indiana’s injury woes compared to a healthy Miami roster. Indiana won’t benefit from any home-court advantage, negating concerns about Miami’s 15-22 road record.
Despite the absence of All-Star Domantas Sabonis, the short-handed Pacers have played well in the bubble, winning six of their eight games.
The Pacers and Heat have faced off four previous times this season, twice before the pandemic and twice in the bubble. Miami pulled out a 113-112 win at AmericanAirlines Arena on Dec. 27, then won by 14 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Jan. 8.
In Orlando, Miami blew out Indiana 114-92 on Aug. 10, followed by a 109-92 Pacers win on Friday with starters limited by both squads.
McMillan has led Indiana to the postseason for five straight seasons, but hasn’t advanced to the second round since 2014. Here’s what needs to happen for McMillan to instantly validate his well-deserved extension with a first-round “upset.”
1) The Pacers are as healthy as possible
Bubble MVP candidate T.J. Warren is dealing with plantar fasciitis, but his case is supposedly “not serious” and McMillan said that his red-hot wing “has been experiencing that really throughout the season,” and “been able to play on it.”
Sabonis, who is averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists in his first All-Star campaign, has yet to play in the bubble as he deals with a left foot injury. However, Indiana hasn’t ruled out his return at some point in Orlando. For now, though he’s still “ruled out indefinitely”.
First and foremost, the Pacers will need all the healthy bodies they can get to fend off a Heat team at nearly full strength (with the possible exception of Derrick Jones Jr., who is day-to-day after suffering a neck sprain on Friday.)
2) TJ Warren continues to go off and outplays Jimmy Butler
The Warren-Butler matchup will generate the headlines, and not just because they are the top options on their respective teams that will likely check each other.
The two star wings got into a scuffle in January that ended with Butler blowing Warren a kiss goodbye.
Butler clearly wants to keep the focus on hoops when the playoffs tip-off. “Look, I just play basketball. I’m going to go out there and be the best player on the floor. That’s what Miami has me here to do. I’m not worried about nobody’s matchup. We can kill that. That’s dead. That’s something of the past.”
And he should: despite Warren’s blow-up in the bubble (31.o PPG), he has struggled against Butler. Warren entered last Monday’s matchup averaging 34.8 points over his previous five contests, only for “The Bubble Barista” to hold him to 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting.
In three games against Miami this season, T.J. Warren really averaged 10.3 PPG on 36% shooting. (19.8 PPG on 54% over the whole season.)
That is next level
— Josh Eberley🇨🇦 (@JoshEberley) August 16, 2020
Warren has never played in a postseason game in his six NBA seasons (Butler has played in 55). The Disney World atmosphere is a unique playoff vibe for everyone, but the idea of being the focus of the same team’s game plan for 4-7 games will pose a new challenge for Warren.
3) Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon carry the secondary scoring loads
Sans Sabonis, the Pacers will need Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon to pick up their scoring output and ease the scoring burden on Warren, especially when matched up against Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, or Goran Dragic.
Brogdon has been typically solid in the seeding games, posting 18.2 points, 6.3 assists and 6.0 rebounds on .435/.400/.875 splits. Oladipo has been up and down in Orlando, averaging 16.0 points per game on 40 percent shooting—numbers that need to improve for the Pacers to advance.
The Pacers were stymied by Miami in the half-court last Monday, as Warren, Brogdon, and Oladipo combined for just 28 points. The absence of Sabonis will be exacerbated by the Heat’s ability to switch across the board defensively, which may require Oladipo and Brogdom to be more aggressive than usual and look to create shots.
4) Indiana’s role players hangs with Miami’s deep bench
On paper, the Pacers aren’t as deep as the Heat, and they will probably need outsized contributions from key role players in order to secure the upset. Aaron Holiday played well in the seeding games (10.1 PPG, 38.9% 3-Pt FG), but his brother, Justin, has not (6.9 PPG, 33.3% FG).
T.J. McConnell will get his uniform dirty, but he doesn’t shoot threes, and whether he can productively run point for the second unit will be crucial. McMillan has had to mix and match his bench at times—turning to the likes of Edward Sumner, Doug McDermott, and T.J. Leaf, and, in general, Indiana will need their second-unit lineups—whomever they may include–to hang with Miami’s bench that includes Dragic, Herro, Andre Iguodala, Kelly Olynyk, Jones Jr., and Meyers Leonard.
5) Myles Turner contains Bam Adebayo
The onus of holding Adebayo, the Most Improved Player of the Year finalist (and occasional point center), falls squarely on Indiana’s fifth-year center.
Turner is an athletic, capable defender who did an admirable job keeping Adebayo when the two squared off last week (10 points, 4-9 FG). But, Turner has often been plagued by foul trouble, and Indiana simply doesn’t have the frontcourt depth to lose him for big playoff minutes.
Miami’s lack of size could potentially cost them in deeper playoff matchups, but Indiana’s back-up bigs—Goga Bitadze and the undersized JaKarr Sampson, who sees occasional run at the five—probably don’t pose a major threat.
6) Indiana holds its own in the three-point shooting battle
This could apply to nearly any team, but it may play a crucial role in this series. Miami finished second in the NBA this season in three-point percentage (37.9%), while Indiana was middle of the road.
Outside of Warren, the Pacers have not shot the three particularly effectively in the bubble (32.4%). Miami hasn’t either, but they possess more proven sharpshooters. Duncan Robinson—shooting 42.9% from three in the bubble—has made 14 threes against Indiana this season (only two players have made more).
For Indiana to cobble together enough points to win four games, they will need capable deep threats like Doug McDermott—a 43.5% three-point shooter on the season but just 34.5% in the bubble—and the Holidays to open up the floor so Warren, Brogdon, and Oladipo can attack the Miami defense.
Game 1: Tuesday, Aug. 18 (4:00 PM ET, AdventHealth Arena, TNT/Fox Sports Indiana)
Game 2: Thursday, Aug. 20 (1:00 PM ET, The Field House, ESPN/Fox Sports Indiana)
Game 3: Saturday, Aug. 22 (3:30 PM ET, AdventHeath Arena, TNT/Fox Sports Indiana)
Game 4: Monday, Aug. 24 (6:30 PM ET, The Field House, TNT/Fox Sports Indiana)
Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, Aug. 26 (TBD)
Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, Aug. 28 (TBD)
Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, Aug. 30 (TBD)
Prediction: Considering both teams finished top-10 in field goal percentage against and points allowed, expect a relatively low-scoring, physical battle.