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The Indiana Pacers held on to Game 5 by a fingernail clipping, defeating the Miami Heat 93-90 and forcing the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals back to Miami for a Game 6. After the Pacers’ Game 4 loss, spearheaded by potent small-ball lineups from the Heat, the onus was on Indiana to make an adjustment. Indiana coach Frank Vogel’s adjustment was mostly to refuse to adjust: He didn’t do anything new; he just did more of what’s been working.

This is the third consecutive year that the Pacers and Heat have met in the playoffs, and — although Lance Stephenson has taken over for Danny Granger the past two seasons for Indiana — a consistent pattern has emerged: Indiana’s starters can more than hold their own against the Heat, but things rapidly fall apart when the Pacers go to their bench.

Indiana Pacers’ Point Differential vs. Miami Heat

levy-pacers-table

In Game 5, Vogel essentially eliminated Rasual Butler and Ian Mahinmi from the Pacers’ rotation, instead playing his starters for 31 minutes. As a group, that’s the most minutes they’ve played in this series, and it’s more minutes than they played in Games 3 and 4 combined.

The point differential numbers in the table above shows how even a few extra minutes from the Pacers’ starters can make a huge difference. To put those per 100 possession numbers in context, the San Antonio Spurs led the NBA this season with a per 100 possession point differential of +8.1. The worst mark in the league, belonging to the Philadelphia 76ers, was -10.7.

There were extenuating circumstances last night. The Pacers’ Paul George poured in 31 second-half points, many of which came on difficult shots. According to the NBA’s SportVU Player Tracking Box Score, he made 10 of 18 contested shots in Game 5, or 55.6 percent. He had made just 32 percent of his contested shots in the series over the first four games. The Heat’s LeBron James also picked up five fouls in just over 23 minutes, about five times his normal foul rate. He sat for almost the entire second and third quarters, and the Pacers’ starters were just even with the Heat while he was on the floor.

The Pacers’ starters aren’t going to outplay the Heat in every stint on the floor or overwhelm every small lineup Miami coach Erik Spoelstra dreams up. But Indiana’s starting five is orders of magnitude more effective than any other lineup the Pacers have.

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