Posted May 23, 2013

Last-second play lifts Heat, raises questions about Pacers’ strategy

2013 NBA playoffs, Erik Spoelstra, Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers, LeBron James, Miami Heat, Rob Mahoney, Roy Hibbert

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Heat and Pacers concluded with a sequence befitting its 53 minutes of give-and-take basketball, through which the most electric talents on both teams made dramatic, game-altering plays.

After a loose-ball scramble with just seconds remaining in overtime, Indiana’s Paul George fired a potential go-ahead three-pointer, only to draw a foul on the scrambling Dwyane Wade. George stepped to the line and iced three consecutive free throws, each hitting its mark perfectly without so much as an extra glance off the rim, to give Indiana a one-point lead.

But out of a timeout with 2.2 seconds left, LeBron James eclipsed that dramatic turn with an outstanding individual play of his own — an unexpected drive when the world anticipated that he would fade. End-game sequences in such a rushed time frame almost always end with a contested jumper, but James saw George in a position of vulnerability and pushed to the rim with abandon. That decision created an opportunity for the best finisher in basketball to lay the ball in just as the clock expired, securing a 103-102 victory for the Heat in Miami.

Noticeably absent from the scene was Indiana center Roy Hibbert, the towering shot-blocker whom Pacers coach Frank Vogel had removed during the timeout after George’s three free throws. Vogel opted to pull his defensive anchor for the second time in the closing minute out of concern for how he might be exploited by a Miami lineup loaded with perimeter shooters. (Vogel also subbed out Hibbert on the Heat’s previous possession, when James drove for a layup that put Miami ahead 101-99 with 10.8 seconds to play in overtime.)

More than anything, Vogel seemed to understand the challenge of guarding the Heat in end-game situations. Indiana wasn’t merely dealing with James, Chris Bosh, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, and Norris Cole (in place of a fouled-out Wade) as individual catch-and-shoot options, after all, but as progressive contingencies in a more complex arrangement of screens and cuts from one of the brightest play-callers in the business. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has proved capable of creating open looks for his team with clipboard ingenuity in just these occasions, and whatever set the Heat ran was sure to challenge the Pacers’ mobility and focus.

“That’s the dilemma they present when they have Chris Bosh at the five [center] spot,” Vogel said. “We put a switching lineup in with the intent to switch and keep everything in front of us.”

And that the Pacers did. Spoelstra’s play design wasn’t intended to free up James for a layup, but merely to create opportunities for several potential options. The first of those options was Bosh, who is at the top of the guy being guarded by Tyler Hansbrough in the picture below. If not for Sam Young’s defensive switch with Hansbrough, Bosh would have had a chance to roll to the basket for a lob after receiving a screen from Allen (No. 34, at the free-throw line):

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 12.37.18 AM

The next trigger was for Allen (hidden behind LeBron near the left elbow in the next screenshot), who immediately curled from his screen toward the left corner. But that option was denied by David West (guarding Battier on the sideline) and trailed closely by Hansbrough:

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 12.37.36 AM

The final trigger was intended for James, who would be in a position to make some kind of play after the dust and screens had settled. Battier found him in a perfect spot, just beyond the top of the key, and James seized an opportunity to attack against George’s off-balance defense.

“Shane definitely gave me a great pass,” James said. “I peeked over my left shoulder — Paul George was a little bit out of place, so I just took off.”

The result was a best-case scenario for the Heat, and a tidal wave of criticism mounting to crash on Vogel. Considering the outcome of the play, it is both easy and accurate to blame Vogel for omitting a player capable of challenging James at the rim, particularly when Young and Hansbrough were the only alternatives Indiana could muster. But the factors in play are far more complicated than they might seem on first glance, as the Pacers were forced to defend the best player in the world operating in near optimal spacing. Vogel could have technically parked Hibbert under the rim, but to do so would almost certainly have left Bosh, a fine mid-range shooter, wide open with a chance to win the game. For those with short memories who might advocate such a strategy, I offer the following:

The context was undeniably different in the case of Bosh’s game-winner against the Spurs in March, but the more general point stands. Additionally, if the Pacers had Hibbert in the game, they surely would not have been switching every action and thus may have lost track of Allen on his curl to the corner or even ceded a look to Bosh at the top of the floor. Either outcome would have created a lesser look than the one James found at the rim, but a quality opportunity for a potential game-winner nonetheless.

Beyond that, Hibbert’s absence is functionally secondary to George’s mistake on the perimeter, by which James was able to charge the basket rather than settle for a jumper. If George had recovered to James with slightly better balance, this is a very different possession and potentially a very different result. As it stands, George’s misplay came at an incredible price, though its cost seems obscured by the simpler, more resonant blame assigned to Vogel.

The immediate criticism of Vogel’s substitution isn’t without its merits. Virtually any outcome would have been better for Indiana than the one that transpired, and dropping Hibbert into the middle of the paint would seem the most straightforward way to change the course of Miami’s execution. But there’s a marked difference between a mistake and a mistake that truly matters, and though we may be convinced that Vogel is guilty of the former, there’s still far too much doubt to condemn him of the latter.

Hibbert would have been more helpful in this instance than Young or Hansbrough, perhaps, but the odds are still too great that Hibbert would be pulled away from the rim or scrambled into a switch rather than lying in wait as James stormed toward the basket. It’s easy to mentally substitute Hibbert’s colossal form for Young’s ineffective help near the rim, but keep in mind that in the way the Pacers defended this sequence, Hibbert would have had to begin the play guarding Allen to wind up in that very spot. The potential was there for Hibbert to affect this possession, but the process of assessing his hypothetical impact is riddled with complications.

For that, we can all thank Spoelstra and Pat Riley, the thoughtful architects behind Miami’s floor-spreading ideals. When James is surrounded by shooters, the Heat’s impeccable spacing induces an uncommon perplexity. It makes opponents think when they should rely on instinct and makes them second-guess when they should lean on their sense of established order. Miami’s quickness and flexibility inspire temporary doubt in even the most confident coaches and create a complete breakdown at the core of an elite defense. It’s an arrangement so trying as to force compromise in a team that was otherwise concrete in its collective identity — so exacting, even, that one can’t entirely blame Vogel for his moment of panic.

Vogel messed up, to be frank, but this is who the Heat are and what they’ve come to do. They may be a team defined by their talent, but the Heat’s championship contention is built in idiosyncrasy above all else. Put another way: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, with all of their altruistic playmaking, create. But when functioning in the kind of transformational lineup that invalidated one of the NBA’s best defenders? They destroy.

50 comments
Dennis D Menace
Dennis D Menace

Some people still think Jordan pushed Russel for him (Jordan) to have a clear shot. 

Travel or not, they will forget it (not unless you are a hardcore Cavalier fan), but they will only remember greatness.


FCC
FCC

just enjoy watching a generational talent.  The arguments about betting better than jordan, kobe, best ever?  Must be a really good player to start that debate already 

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

A -  stop going the "NBA rigged this or that" way of thinking...it doesn't apply here - not at all - the Pacers shot seven more FT's and had 3 more to potentially ice the game down the stretch - no conspiracy here

 B - stop with the "traveling" argument... people are only saying that because its LeBron and they want every possible   excuse to ridicule the layup.  He traveled no more than 99.999% of all players do in all NBA games for the past several decades.  Its a moot point to start nitpicking it now

C - This is purely an Indiana defense failure, more than a brilliant Heat play - Vogel could have put Hibbert on the floor, sure, but that wouldn't have meant he would be camped out under the basket.  Paul George was just out of position. Period.  Thats all that happened here, nothing more, nothing less.  Hibbert more than likely wouldn't have made a big difference: Either bosh has an open look or Ray Allen does, or LeBron still gets a layup.  Either way Paul George made a mistake and thats all there is to it

Meitheisman
Meitheisman

Am I the only one seeing LeBron travel on that very last play? He clearly catches the ball, then slightly moves his right foot and then takes a giant step with his left... Since he moved his right foot first his left foot becomes his pivot foot which you're not allowed to move before releasing the ball according to the official NBA rule. "To start a dribble after establishing a pivot foot, the ball must be released from the player’s hand before his pivot foot leaves the floor or he has committed a traveling violation." Why aren't any analysts talking about that, I'm neither a Heat nor a Pacer fan but I find it really sad to decide a Conference Finals game on a mistake the refs did not see.

DanDippel
DanDippel

It went according to how it was scripted before the series started.  LOL


6marK6
6marK6

James should have been double teamed on the inbound to deny him the ball. The Heat did not have Wade on the floor and it is doubtful anybody other than James was capable of getting the basket. It was horrible coaching on Indy's part.

KevinConley
KevinConley

Not to go all 1950s on this, but LeBron clearly plants two feet (count em, one, two, and jump) on that layup. Sure, this rule hasn't been enforced since Watergate, but wow if there's a more blatant example of the total disregard of it in a critical moment, I can't think of one.

BY
BY

Not a fan of either team, just like basketball. This is the difference between good coach/bad coach. If Indiana gets a stop Vogel is a good coach. If the Heat hit a jumper everybody would be saying "How could they give that up?" The Heat put a lot of pressure on the defense with all their weapons. Score one for Spoelstra and the Heat staff.

mjhellund
mjhellund

Stupid coaching. And the add-on free throw on the Bosh putback was unadulterated commissioner crap.

marino.eccher
marino.eccher

This is fair analysis, but the bottom line boils down to the most basic truth about basketball: It's easier to score from 0 feet than 15 or 20 feet. Packing the paint might have created a good look for an excellent jump-shooter, no doubt about it. But that good look is still better than a point-blank layup by LeBron. You can live with a jumper that beats you. You can't live with the layup.

mattdolloff
mattdolloff

Has to be the easiest game winning shot of all time. Yeah Pacers you might want your elite defensive center on the floor on the last freaking play of the game.

QuezeboJones
QuezeboJones

You can see George overplaying to his left expecting James to go that way. As James said, he peeked, saw George and wheeled to his left side. End of story

Sami
Sami

Steven, reading comprehension 101, I guess you missed that class? "Good drive" and "superstar" would suggest that I do appriciate great players. "Terrible defense" probably hints that I thought Pacers defended the whole situation terribly. Thought that Hibbert had fouled out but he hadn't, can't believe he wasn't parked under the rim. 

What I was trying to say was that now that NBA has turned into poor man's college game where half the players don't know what basketball fundamentals are, maybe we could start to rebuild the game by teaching players to dribble the ball before running two steps with a ball in their hands. If you think that would be bad for basketball, then you Sir, are a fool.

jsteppling
jsteppling

Vogel BLUNDERED.......indiana had a good shot to steal one and then who knows......believe me, stranger things have happened...the NBA is made up of upsets. Taking Hibbert off makes no sense. NONE. You can try to say oh, now they switch.,.....but the truth is, its a bonehead coaching move. Utterly ridiculous and Mahoney shouldnt sugar coat it. But pacers weakness is its a team of bad ballhandlers.....this game was won earlier. And profit....you shut up.......its a freakin comment thread you dolt. Have an idea profit? Share....dont cap on people expressing their opinions. Its like the thought gestapo here sometimes......if you have an original thought...share.

Sami
Sami

Good drive and terrible defense by the Pacers, but would it kill the NBA to teach kids how to dribble? When the game winner is decided by a superstar who takes two full steps before dribbling the ball, it's a sore eye for basketball in general.

Meitheisman
Meitheisman

@AaronDunckel A - I never said anything was rigged. B - I don't say it because it's LeBron at all, I've been saying the same thing since I started following the NBA in the early 90s, I find it extremely frustrating as a basketball player to watch the best players in the world not respect some of the simplest and most basic rules of the game. C - Without traveling I'm not sure LeBron gets a step ahead of George which would completely change the play, therefore the refs not whistling what clearly should have been according to the rulebook heavily influenced the outcome of a Conference Finals game.

JonathanD
JonathanD

@Meitheisman He shifts to his toes on the right foot, but he doesn't move it.  The left foot does not become the pivot.  Referees would NEVER call what you are telling them to call, at any stage of the game.  If they did, virtually every post player would travel 4-5 times a game.

GeorgeMencia
GeorgeMencia

@Meitheisman The funny thing is that in the NBA where it seems that players can take 4 steps towards the basket, you decide to call out a travel on the one play that the player didn't actually travel.  That "slight movement" that you see on his right foot is him "pivoting" it to face the basket.  You can see he raises his heel, but the ball of his foot stays planted.

Thats fully allowed, think of it in slower terms, a player gets the ball with his back to the basket, and pivots around to face the basket.

In the case of the play in question, he pivots the right foot to face the basket and takes his first step with his left on his lunge to the basket - which he begins his dribble in the same motion.

DanDippel
DanDippel

@Meitheisman  Traveling in the NBA? When was the last time you have seen it called?  Or how about carrying the basketball?  When I played basketball in high school you had to dribble with your fingertips as soon as your palm touched the ball it was called palming or carrying the ball. None of those cross over moves you see now in college and pros would have been allowed back in the day.


casualumberjack
casualumberjack

@Meitheisman Under no circumstances would nor should that be called a travel in an end of game situation. Who would watch the NBA if the most exciting games end with weak travel calls?


AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@DanDippel

The pacers shot more free throws than the heat - and the refs also gave them 3 at the end that could have won the game. Dont sissy out and blame this on the NBA or the refs... this was all Pacers and George, failing at the critical moment

marino.eccher
marino.eccher

@JonathanD There is probably no such thing as clutch or not clutch -- just opportunity, small sample sizes and good or bad bounces.

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

@mjhellund sure, blame the NBA for everything the Heat have go their way... its a big conspiracy...blah blah blah.... The pacers shot more Free Throws.... they shot 3 of them to potentially ice the game, before giving up a bad defensive play to lose the game


stop blaming the NBA whenever things dont go your way

QuezeboJones
QuezeboJones

@mattdolloff  

Look at the pictures. Hibbert would have been on Bosh. If he had left Bosh to check James it leaves Bosh wide open for dunk. Once James got by George it was all over. 

Thomas13
Thomas13

@QuezeboJones Agreed, except that I would add that George is human and that while James may walk among us, basketball-wise is is not of this Earth.

WCoastPro
WCoastPro

@Sami You deride the NBA players' skills every chance you get yet you seem to watch every game? Or...  you do not watch games and just comment on their lack of skills and how much better a ballplayer you would be. You could probably dribble circles around these so-called pro hoopsters and outshoot them every spot on the floor. We should be watching you play! 

dreynolds48941
dreynolds48941

@Sami You should read the NBA rulebook.  I am guessing you don't know the rule regarding traveling violations.  Hint: LeBron didn't travel, at least according to the rules that have been around for 50 years.

Meitheisman
Meitheisman

@GeorgeMencia @Meitheisman So you're admitting that he pivots his right foot and move his left foot... that's not allowed, you're only allowed to move one of your two feet before dribbling, not both.

Meitheisman
Meitheisman

@DanDippel @Meitheisman So why is there a rule about traveling then? Like casualumberjack said either change the rule to allow traveling or enforce it strictly. As for traveling being called in the NBA here are some stats from a few seasons ago: http://www.82games.com/random18.htm
To me the problem is the inconsistency, either never call traveling violations or do it all the time, anything in between is simply unfair and makes a mockery of the game.

Meitheisman
Meitheisman

@casualumberjack @Meitheisman Then the NBA should change the rules... It's not because it's the last play of the game that the rules shouldn't apply anymore. That or players should practice their fundamentals a bit more and not commit traveling violation at critical times in games. Don't you think?

DanDippel
DanDippel

@AaronDunckel @DanDippel Where in my statement did I blame the refs or NBA?  Have you heard of sarcasm?  If not I suggest you look it up in the dictionary.



marino.eccher
marino.eccher

@JonathanD To amend that: Some players are certainly better executors than others. Over time, Kobe makes more game-winners than Mark Madsen. But among elite executors, I'd be surprised if there are real end-of-game skill differences over time.

mjhellund
mjhellund

@AaronDunckel @mjhellund It's not my way. It's the way the league creeps in. The add-on on the Bosh follow to get them to OT was a phantom. The manipulation is revolting.


Meitheisman
Meitheisman

@dreynolds48941 @Sami  I think you should read the rulebook Dreynolds... "To start a dribble after establishing a pivot foot, the ball must be released from the player’s hand before his pivot foot leaves the floor or he has committed a traveling violation." From the official NBA website http://www.nba.com/nba101/misunderstood_0708.html - James moves his right foot after catching the ball making his left foot his pivot foot and his left foot clearly leaves the floor before the ball leaves James' hand.

GeorgeMencia
GeorgeMencia

Ok little troll, your pivot foot can move and act as a pivot, hence the name, the foot is never raised and it's position is not reset, nor does he slide it to another position. Again imagine a pass to a player facing away from the basket. After receiving the ball the player can turn his entire body by planting one foot and pivoting around the planted foot. The pivot foot has in this scenario turned 180 degrees, but has not shifted from a planted state.

This is the same thing that happens in the play, lebrons right foot is planted, it pivots 90 degrees to facilitate the move to the basket without being lifted or giving up its planted state. The only step taken is by the left foot. At this point, any failure on your part to understand this will lead to my assumption that you are simply trolling, or that you have a basic lack of ability to understand simple concepts.

m3kwong
m3kwong

@Meitheisman @DanDippel Geez man, they are not going to enforce those like a robot, they'll miss calls, they'll call it if it's very obvious, more obvious than what Lebron did. Of course you are going to that was obvious in your eyes.  It's been like that since the beginning of basket ball.  Otherwise they will review every play on every angle and have probably double the fouls, turn overs and stoppages. Ppl would not watch something like that. Get real.

casualumberjack
casualumberjack

@Meitheisman @casualumberjack I completely agree. Traveling rules should either be modified or strictly enforced. You can't blame the players though, they are going to do anything they can get away with in order to win. James knew he wouldn't be called for that. He's done it thousands of times.

Meitheisman
Meitheisman

@casualumberjack The point is basically that James gained an advantage by breaking the rules and breaking a rule should never result in a positive outcome.

JonathanD
JonathanD

@marino.eccher @JonathanD For the most part, I agree.  Some players will take higher percentage shots, either because of the system, their preferences, or physical attributes.  But the whole "clutch" vs. "not clutch" thing is usually ridiculous.  I was posting the numbers to destroy a myth, not create a new one.

Eric70
Eric70

@Meitheisman@dreynolds48941@Sami

Traveling? This is not the 50s and 60s anymore where guys dribble hunched over so they don't palm the ball and carefully watch their steps, making them all move slowly. Lebron plays the game of today, fast and explosive. There's youtube for old NBA games if you really care about traveling so much.