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Heat vs. Pacers not simply small vs. big

LeBron James vs. Paul GeorgeBrian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

Ask Paul George, who has to guard the bigger LeBron, if size is what makes the Pacers different.Two of my favorite things are The New Yorker and the NBA. When the former arrives in my mailbox every week (yes, on paper), the first thing I do is scan the contents for a mention of the latter.

I have gone whole decades; the NBA just doesn't make it onto those pages much.

But this time of year, with the Eastern Conference finals simmering and the Finals on deck, the NBA is just about everywhere. If not all the way into the pages of The New Yorker, it's at least on the website today, in a Nilkanth Patel post called "How to Beat LeBron James."

The key line is about the contrast in styles between the small-ball Heat and the gargantuan Pacers:

What has made it so compelling is the larger, philosophical question that it presents: Is the future of the N.B.A. on the perimeter, with the Heat, or in the interior, with the upstarts?

Indeed the NBA is changing profoundly. There is a battle for the future.

But it's not about big versus small. All else being equal, every coach and GM in the league vastly prefers the bigger guy. (And you might be surprised to know which of the two teams scores more points, on average, in the paint.)

Boiled down, this is really about shooting 3s versus not shooting 3s -- no matter your size. The Heat have a lot of players who shoot 3s; the Pacers have a lot of players who don't.

That's the cultural battle that's playing out in the Eastern Conference finals.

Coaches getting the 3

Thirty-four years after the introduction of the 3-pointer, hopped up on a massive dose of new-breed analytics, the league's coaches are finally coming around to the idea that the 3-pointer is not a risky shot. As a whole, the league is shooting more of them by strategy and giving more minutes to players who are good at it.

That's good news for a lot of people -- stretch 4s, innovative coaches, stat geeks, fans who find feats of skill more entertaining that feats of strength. But it's bad news for brutes and traditionalists. Old-school power forwards are the ones who can't shoot 3s, and therefore the main group to see minutes -- and, over time, dollars -- erode. For example, the Golden State Warriors' offense improved dramatically when their non-3-point-shooting power forward David Lee was injured and replaced by 3-point-shooting Harrison Barnes. The Spurs' offense lights up opponents almost every time floor-spacer Matt Bonner takes off his sweats, even if he doesn't shoot. As Bonner stands in the corner, drawing the defense out of the paint, "traditional" big man Tiago Splitter tends to take a seat on the bench.

Big centers are so rare that they'll always demand the league's time and money, but even some of them have seen slightly diminished roles. And smaller centers have been feeling the pinch. For instance, the Heat used to start non-shooting 6-foot-9 Joel Anthony at center next to Chris Bosh. Now Bosh can shoot 3s and "plays" center, while Anthony almost never plays.

It's happening all over the league

An influential posse of change-fearing basketball people are rattled. So rattled, and so influential, that with a dozen real topics looming (where will the Kings play, is revenue sharing working, why are TV ratings down somewhat this year, can the referees do better), an April Board of Governors meeting made a key issue, per David Stern, out of this issue: Should the league do something to keep teams from shooting so many 3-pointers?

To his credit, Stern says the league felt little need to do anything now, concluding: "OK, that's interesting. Let's see how the coaches deal with that."

The battle is between the 3-happy reformers, which include the Heat, and the "big men should stay in the paint" traditionalists, a group that includes the Pacers. Traditionalists once compelled young Kevin Garnett to deny he was 7 feet tall -- at one point joking he was "6-12" -- for fear that he would be consigned to low-skill big man work in the paint instead of becoming an MVP who roams all over the court. That's the battle, especially as embodied by the reality that the Heat start slender, mobile, new-breed, long-shooting Bosh at center while the Pacers start 7-2 MMA-trained, made-four-3-pointers-in-five years, tallest-player-in-the-conference Roy Hibbert.

There's contrast there, to be sure.

But this is not as simple as the big Pacers versus the small Heat, as The New Yorker and almost every other media outlet are telling it.

Some facts:

  • The Heat ranked 14th in the NBA in points in the paint this season, according to NBA.com/stats. The Pacers were 20th.

  • The combined heights and weights of the rotation players on each team are similar. Yes, Hibbert is much bigger than Bosh, but LeBron James has a comparable physical advantage (listed weight: 250, real weight unknown and suspected to be more) over 221-pound Paul George. The rest of the starters have almost identical listed sizes. The Pacers' bench includes 6-11 Ian Mahinmi, but the Heat counter with 6-10 Chris Andersen, whose inside play has been decisive at times.

The "big" story of this series is not that the Pacers have size up and down the roster that makes things impossible for the Heat. The "big" story is Hibbert. He's massive, wonderful and series-changing.

And that's the whole size story. Without him, the Heat are bigger, and better. When Hibbert is on the bench -- the analytics here are clear as a bell -- the Heat score more or less at will in the paint. When he's on the court, they're befuddled.

For all the talk of his athleticism and ever-improved skills (posting up, shooting from all over), James' key advantage is that he's much bigger than anybody agile enough to keep up with him. Fast breaks and shooting 3s are seen as small-guy activities, but they're not when James, who has the body of one of those traditional power forwards, does them.

And that's what the debate is really about: guys with bodies that could thrive in the paint playing out on the floor. The 3 is emerging. What it's bringing with it is not the decline of big players but the decline of unskilled players.

The thing the Pacers could do to most become like the Heat is learn to shoot more 3s. If David West added that skill, he would be Bosh-like. If Lance Stephenson lit it up from 3, people would call him a poor man's LeBron. If Hibbert added the 3 ... he'd be a monster.

And if all that happened, the Pacers would not only be much better, but they'd also be exactly as big as they are now -- even as they would switch camps in the NBA's "big" culture war.