Game 7 is just hours away, we already know that LeBron James needs to go supernova, that Paul George needs to attack like he's the best player in the Eastern Conference finals, that Game 7 will serve as a reputation-altering referendum on multiple members of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers and that it just might be the defining moment of the Big Three era in South Beach. Those are the big-ticket items, the superstar questions and considerations. But what about the other stuff?
With just one win separating both the Heat and Pacers from a trip to the NBA Finals, let's consider three role-player-related questions that could wind up proving critical in determining which team represents the Eastern Conference against the San Antonio Spurs in the championship round.
1. Will the Lance Stephenson risk/reward calculus tilt Indiana's way or Miami's?
The Brooklyn-born shooting guard has become a cause célèbre this postseason, thanks in part to a monster second-round performance against the New York Knicks and an evident fearlessness in his game befitting his famed nickname ("Born Ready"). He's also the kind of nightly crapshoot who would fit perfectly on Doc Rivers' "All-Scare Team" for his ability to strike fear into the hearts of coaches on both his own bench and the opposing sideline.
Stephenson's been a terror on the boards this series, averaging just under seven rebounds per game and twice pulling down a dozen caroms, most recently in Saturday's Game 6. His size, length and athleticism make him an integral part of Indiana's defensive scheme, giving Frank Vogel a rangy and tough defender he feels comfortable matching up against most any wing player the opponent can offer on a given possession; while Dwyane Wade's struggles have been well documented and likely stem more from injury and declining ability than defensive acumen, Stephenson's quickness and physicality have certainly helped in rendering the All-Star guard largely unthreatening in this series. And when he's clearing the defensive glass or leaking out after a teammate does, Stephenson can be an absolute freight train in transition, becoming a one-man fast break who barrels straight to the rim to put pressure on Miami's defense and create scramble situations that often reveal openings for his colleagues.
He's also a scary shooter (34.5 percent from the floor, 26.8 percent from 3-point range this series) who tends to take a lot of shots (nearly 10 a game, despite those percentages) and can be, shall we say, overly optimistic in his assessment of his ability to cash in on passing opportunities. Stephenson can be, and has been, an extremely useful player for Indiana on both ends of the court. But when he starts to feel like he can move beyond "useful player" to "star player" on for a few possessions at a time, things can get dicey for Indiana, and the Pacers' worst tendencies as a team — shaky ball-handling and decision-making on offense; too many turnovers, especially of the live-ball variety; a capacity for going cold from the field — can rear their ugly heads.
When Stephenson's bringing more to the table than he's taking off — like in Game 2 (12 shots to score 10 points, but two made 3s, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and just one turnover), Game 4 (20 points on 60 percent shooting, a huge buzzer-beating 3, just one turnover) and Game 6 (12 rebounds, four assists to negate his four turnovers, pace-pushing on the break) — he's a huge asset. When the math's reversed — like in Game 3 (just 2 for 10 from the floor, only one rebound) and Game 5 (2 for 7 from the floor, more turnovers than assists, a 29-minute foulout) — he can be a detriment. Which way the needle moves figures to be a big, big story tonight.
2. Will Chris Andersen play a major role in his return from suspension?
We know that Game 6 was "real tough to watch, bro" for "The Birdman," who took in Saturday night's festivities from his Indianapolis hotel room after earning a one-game suspension for his Game 5 shove of Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough. That much stands to reason — whether he'll be able to make a major difference in Game 7 remains in doubt.
While replacement Joel Anthony played about as well as could be expected, pitching in eight rebounds and three blocks in 29 minutes, it couldn't have been easy for Andersen to see the Pacers step up their domination of the interior by grabbing just under 62 percent of available rebounds — including 81 percent of Heat misses, Hoovering the defensive glass, keeping Miami from extending possessions and contributing to a 14-5 advantage in second-chance points — and doubling Miami up (44-22) in points in the paint. Statistically speaking, though, Andersen hasn't been a significant game-changer on the glass or in terms of defending the paint against Indy's tall trees.
The Pacers made roughly the same percentage of their shots in the lane whether Andersen played or was on the bench through the series' first five games, but they attempted more paint shots when Andersen was in (59.3 percent of their total field-goal attempts) than when he sat (52.3 percent). Indiana grabbed a slightly higher share of available offensive rebounds and a slightly lower percentage of Heat misses against Birdman, meaning the Pacers' overall rebounding percentage stayed roughly the same (and better than the Heat's, at just better than a 55-45 split) whether Andersen played or sat, and Indiana had outscored Miami by 1.8 points per 100 possessions during his 92 minutes; through Game 5, the Heat had outscored Indy by 5.7 points-per-100 in 153 non-Bird minutes.
Where Andersen's impact could be felt, though, is on the offensive end, where he's been famously effective throughout this postseason, hitting 86 percent of his shots; he's made 18 straight field goals stretching back to the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the second round against the Chicago Bulls. Andersen's feasted on opportunities in the so-called "Bird Box" at the front of the rim thanks to dump-offs created by dribble penetration; for all his hard work, Anthony doesn't have nearly the same finishing talent, and went just 1 for 5 in the paint in Game 6 without generating a single free throw. (Andersen went 6 for 7 from the stripe in the series' first three games.)
With Miami struggling to find reliable sources of offense not named LeBron James, any added scoring punch the Bird can provide could prove to be a major boost to the Heat's chances of moving on to the finals. And while Andersen's sure to come into the game overloaded with emotion and raring to go, he'll also need to keep his temper in check, because even if an overstep doesn't cost him tonight, it could once again do so in the near future:
Remember, a Flagrant 1 will not leave Birdman ejected tonight. But any flagrant call on him will leave him suspendedfor Heat's next game.
— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) June 3, 2013
(If, y'know, there is a next Heat game.)
3. If Shane Battier and Ray Allen continue to struggle, will Erik Spoelstra go to Mike Miller again, and more?
Battier shot 43 percent from 3-point range during the regular season and was a huge part of Miami being able to make opponents pay for A) playing larger lineups to take advantage of the Heat's small interior and B) sending help defense to slow James, Wade or Chris Bosh. Allen shot 42 percent from 3-point range this season and was an absolute assassin on the short corner 3s that the Miami offense is designed to create, which also made him a really effective decoy in some of the Heat's pet sets. They're both drowning from deep in this series, with Allen shooting an unseemly 29.2 percent (7 for 24) from deep and Battier's pre-conference finals shooting slump reaching a heinous nadir — he's just 2 for 15 from 3-point land (13.3 percent) against Indiana.
Battier's disappearance has been especially damaging, because if he's also going to get pulverized on the defensive end by Pacers power forward David West — and he mostly has, scoring just over 10 more points per 48 minutes with Battier on the floor than when Shane sits, shooting 52.2 percent from the floor (compared to 43.3 percent when Battier's out) and getting fouled twice as often (a crazy 9.6 personals drawn per-48 Battier minutes) — then he has to be able to make Indiana pay on the other side of the court. If he can't, then it's really hard to find a viable role for Battier against Indiana ... which is why he played just 4 1/2 minutes in Game 6. Allen will continue to see the floor, though, both because he seems a better bet to continue to draw defensive attention and to exploit its absence and because he's played surprisingly good on-ball defense when matched up against Paul George in this series, but the longer he goes without delivering the daggers, the bolder the Pacers feel about helping on more dangerous threats.
With the Heat having such a hard time finding openings against Indiana's stout starting defensive unit and floor-spacing at such a premium in Game 6, Spoelstra reached down his bench for Miller, who had played a grand total of 6 1/2 minutes in the series and didn't get off the pine in Games 1 and 5. Miller, naturally, promptly responded by nailing two straight 3-pointers, grabbing three rebounds in 12 minutes, helping create a turnover by doubling Roy Hibbert in the post and then diving on the floor for a loose ball that he pitched ahead to generate a LeBron layup in transition during a fourth-quarter run that brought Miami within four points.
He wasn't perfect (you might recall him getting big-boy'd for an offensive rebound and putback flush by West in the fourth) and there are very obvious reasons — injuries, mostly, but also superior play by others — that he's become an in-case-of-emergency kind of player for Erik Spoelstra. But considering how Miami's designated sharpshooters, and especially Battier, have been playing, it might be time for Spoelstra to break the glass and see whether Miller can give him 12 (or more) minutes like the ones he offered Saturday. If he can't, and Battier and Allen continue to fail to provide downtown scoring, Miami could see its season end before the finals for the first time in three years.