Posted June 03, 2013

While Roy Hibbert shines, Pacers’ defense truly thrives as a collective

2013 NBA playoffs, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Rob Mahoney
Dwyane Wade has struggled in the series, but Lance Stephenson has had a lot to do with it. (Charles Trainor Jr./Getty Images)

Dwyane Wade has struggled in the series, but Lance Stephenson has had a lot to do with it. (Charles Trainor Jr./Getty Images)

Roy Hibbert has come to stand as a towering monument to defensive efficacy during this season and the Eastern Conference finals. He looms over most every play action that the Heat employ or consider, and casts a long shadow over the lane to the rim.

Hibbert’s influence could hardly have been more apparent in Game 6, in particular, when the Heat managed just 77 points and (as noted by Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com) posted their lowest field-goal percentage in the paint since LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami in 2010. Whether turning James away at the rim or subtly altering the decision-making of the Heat’s scorers, Hibbert has controlled the most crucial area of the floor against an opponent that dominates there with regularity.

In granting Hibbert his much-deserved due, though, we may be at risk of overlooking all else that goes on in the Pacers’ team defense. It’s tempting to laud Hibbert’s shot-altering ability as if he were the only defender on the floor — the one man standing between Miami and easy layups, or between James and destiny itself. There’s certainly truth to that portrayal, but praise, too, should go to the full cast of Indiana defenders who are collectively draining the life out of the league’s most potent offense.

Even plays that end with Hibbert so often begin with great coverage elsewhere on the court, especially on the three-point line. The Heat shot remarkably well from outside in Game 6, but uncounted in Miami’s three-point shooting percentage are the attempts that the Pacers wiped away entirely with hard close-outs, such as in this sequence involving Miami’s Ray Allen and Indiana’s Lance Stephenson:

This sequence — a “hammer” set often employed by Miami — requires complete awareness from the defenders on the weak side of the court in order to counter. The initial spacing doesn’t put Stephenson in a very vulnerable position, but a quick slide into the corner by Allen and a calculated gambit by the Heat’s Norris Cole conjure an open passing angle to an outstanding three-point shooter. Stephenson doesn’t completely preempt the pass, but by the time Cole jumps out of bounds, he immediately recovers to Allen in the corner and manages to prevent a shot without losing his balance or jumping wildly to contest a potential shot. Allen beating Stephenson off the dribble on a nice drive, but it’s that initial denial that detonates Miami’s play and forces Allen into Hibbert’s help.

The Pacers were similarly effective in locking down the Heat’s pick-and-rolls, taking away attempts in delayed transition and denying dribble-drive angles, most of which halted Miami’s progress before Hibbert’s help could even come into play:

Indiana has counted on this brand of smart, steady perimeter coverage as a means of eating away at the Heat’s scoring efficiency. Under most circumstances, Miami spaces the floor too easily and moves the ball too well for defenses to deny it all that much; even if one option is halted, a quality shot is usually a swing pass or two away. But the Pacers combine a remarkable amount of defensive discipline on the perimeter with the impeccable help of both Hibbert and David West — a foundation that, when combined with the more general struggles of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, has eroded Miami’s offensive base.

Things might be different if Wade, in particular, were on top of his game, but we’ve seen two equally problematic strands of offense from him of late. The first: early, contested jumpers that play right into the Pacers’ hands:

The second: desperate forays into the paint that are inevitably swarmed:

Indiana relies on its starting lineup far more than most, and as a result has sharpened its defensive chemistry by way of continuity. Stephenson understands that if he makes Wade go middle on his post attempt, the help — whether from West or Hibbert — will be there. In this case, it’s West who steps in to smother the play, but don’t undersell the basic, directional defense that Stephenson employs from the outset. Wade, in general, loves to attack defenses by working baseline, but in this instance Stephenson controls for that option, stands his ground to buy the help defense time and helps bottle up a close-range attempt from a struggling scorer.

Paul George had similar success in guarding James in the post, a matchup that appeared fatal for the Pacers as recently as Game 3. In that game, James was able to back down the far leaner George easily and spin into easy scores. In Game 6, that productive approach was replaced with this:

James can obviously make that shot, but George challenges his attempt well and the Pacers on the whole influence the course of the play with their positioning. After entering the ball to James on the wing for a post-up try, the Heat clear out the entire left side of the floor and overload the right — a decision would seem to provide good spacing for James to operate. But in doing so (and in remaining stagnant on that side of the floor as opposed to cutting), all Miami has done is reduce the number of threats that the Pacers have to cover.

Wade is parked outside the three-point line, a range at which Indiana need pay him no mind. Udonis Haslem is stationed on the baseline, but he is so close to the play that Hibbert can stand in the middle ground. Mario Chalmers makes a quick curl through the paint after feeding James, but he ultimately settles in with Wade and Bosh in a cluster that makes it that much more difficult for LeBron to kick the ball out to any one of them. As a result of all of this, George is able to play James closely while four Pacers keep a foot in the paint, an array of help options that go well beyond Hibbert.

James is aware of this, just as he’s aware of Hibbert’s presence on every drive to the rim. It’s turned him into a blunt instrument rather than an exacting tool, and on occasions like the one above, it takes away nearly every alternative by marginalizing almost every one of James’ teammates.

It can’t be forgotten that two of the Heat’s stars have struggled, but it’s the Pacers’ defense that has invited callbacks to the LeBron-led Cavaliers. Things have reached the point where Indiana’s D is so stout as a collective that Tyler Hansbrough can guard Allen, foul-troubled wings can take refuge against Wade and Bosh can be left open on the perimeter without much concern.

There’s a convolution of Miami’s struggles and Indiana’s successes that’s almost impossible to fully unwind, but that in itself is only a testament to the Pacers’ awareness. They’ve caught breaks, and through Hibbert, they have help. But Indiana’s players on the whole understand the specifics of their coverage so intimately that they exploit even the most unexpected advantages and rise to the challenge of stopping the Heat through smart execution and simple adjustment.

12 comments
True Fan
True Fan

It's called team defense.

hdogg48
hdogg48

I am only a casual NBA fan. This series however has caught my

iinterest, and I am following the games, and find the matchups

and strategies intriguing"

Rob Mahoney has shown me what great sports journalists should

do with this exceptional piece. Breaking down defensive game plans

and adjustments and describing them with clarity and then providing

short concise video clips is an approach that is effective, entertaining

and insightful.........well done!

bobdevo
bobdevo

If Chris Bosh could justify his salary by making some frickin' shots, then Hibbert wouldn't BE at the basket.  As for Wade, the Heat would be better off sitting him and playing Battier at shooting guard, since he can't get into the rotation at forward.

dt
dt

And to think this series could have been over if Hibbert was on the floor at the end of game 1

rithm
rithm

Well written and well cited article.  Thank you for having something insightful on the series.  Keep it up.  

From the only home state of NBA Conference Finals Playoff Teams, Coaches and Starters:

(Pop, the Pacers, Hill, Randolph and Conley)



Epoch1
Epoch1

The Heat let their best chance slip away. The Pacers will take game 7 by at least 10 points and Bosh will cry again. James of course will blame everyone in Miami except himself.

morejunk
morejunk

Spare me.  This article only needed to be a sentence fragment long.  That sentence fragment..."...when combined with the more general struggles of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade..."

If they play like crap (like they mostly have been and really did game 6) then the Heat usually lose, if they get hot then the Pacers will look like the 5 seed they are.  Jordan lost until he got the right supporting cast.  Lebron's no different.  No player can dominate when it's 2-3 on 1.  But if Wade and Bosh become threats again then the Heat will win (against anyone). Granted at this point that's a huge "if" because Wade and Bosh suck out loud right now.

chevyblu
chevyblu

The game changes in #7.  Heat walks away winner at home and bury Pacers once and for all.  They almost did it in the Pacers building during the 3rd and 4th quarter before the Pacers woke up and hung on for the victory.  Overall the Heat looked like a team that expects to win it all at home.


newshamg
newshamg

@JaY19NY Tough to take someone seriously though who has Kyrie Irving is the top 5 PG's. Very good player and in the future should be in the top 3 of the league but right now he is in some areas of the game an utter disaster.