Frank Vogel is the second youngest coach in the league, yet he and his coaching staff are the architects of the first ranked defense in the NBA in points allowed per game. Vogel is aided by one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, Paul George, as well as arguably the NBA’s best interior defender, Roy Hibbert.
In game one of the Eastern Conference Finals, however, Paul George’s defensive debacle cost the Pacers a victory, while Roy Hibbert was left shaking his head in disbelief from the Pacers’ bench. Perhaps the moment was too big for Paul George, left in a one-on-one isolation defending LeBron James and a one-point lead. NBA analysts were quick to attack Vogel for sitting Hibbert in Indiana’s most important 2.2 seconds since their last trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2004. But is it fair to put the blame on Vogel?
Erik Spoelstra went with what he thought was his best shooting lineup: Chris Bosh, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Ray Allen, and James. According to hoopdata.com, Bosh had the best 16-23 foot jump shot in the NBA for anyone that averaged over 1.5 attempts per game from that range in the regular season, and Battier was Miami’s best 3-point shooter in the regular season at 43%. Cole has been Miami’s best three-point shooter this post-season and Allen is the all time leader in 3’s made. Then there is always the best player in the game to worry about, LeBron James.
As the coach of the defense, Vogel was forced to react to Miami’s lineup choice. Paul George is Indiana’s best perimeter defender—a stud when forced to defend one-on-one in isolation situations (just ask Carmelo Anthony)—and an obvious choice to guard James. George Hill’s combination of strength, size, and quickness, made him the ideal defender for Norris Cole, and he could have also guarded Allen in the event of a defensive switch. Sam Young is the Pacers second best perimeter defender, and has a size advantage on Ray Allen. Tyler Hansbrough was put on Bosh, as Vogel preferred Hansbrough’s quickness and versatility for an “all-switch” lineup. Spoelstra the tabbed Battier to inbound the ball with 2.2 seconds remaining, and Vogel countered with West, who is big enough to disrupt the passing lanes and quick enough to keep up with Battier. Vogel’s lineup made sense.
But how could Hibbert have fit in to what Vogel called his “switching” lineup?
Option One: Protect the Paint
With 2.2 tics left on the clock, the defensive three-second violation is no longer a concern for the defense. Indiana could have put Hibbert in the paint, which would make a drive to the basket extremely unlikely. What’s another unlikely play? A three-point field goal attempt by Norris Cole or Shane Battier on a team that also features LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Ray Allen; and did I mention LeBron James? Everyone knew James was getting the ball here. This defense would leave Shane Battier unguarded as he inbounds the ball. Once Battier inbounds the ball, he would be left open on the perimeter. In the event that the ball gets back to Battier the defender can closeout hard and jump to contest if it appears as if Battier is about to shoot, as a subsequent pass would be almost impossible off of a pump-fake considering the time that would elapse.
If the ball is not given back to Battier, who was 0 for 4 on his field goal attempts in the game (all threes), Indiana can match up one-on-one against Miami’s other four players, and keep Hibbert in the paint in the event of a drive to the basket. With 2.2 seconds remaining in the game, a semi-open three is not a bad shot to get from a half-court inbounds play, but with James, Allen, and Bosh as superior options on the floor, a three from Battier should have been desirable for Indiana.
Option Two: Put More Size on the Inbounder
While David West is an elite NBA big man, he is neither Indiana’s biggest nor most elite player. Roy Hibbert is the Pacer with the maximum contract, he is arguably the best interior defender in the NBA, and he is the voice of the Indiana Pacers (for better or worse). Yet, Frank Vogel didn’t trust his star center to be able to deal with Miami’s biggest player on the floor, Chris Bosh. Vogel opted to go with Tyler Hansbrough, a big man with enough size to guard Bosh, and enough speed to switch onto a smaller player and be able to stay close enough to contest any shot while avoiding a blow-by.
Hibbert and Hansbrough had similar success in isolation situations this year. In switches onto guards or smaller players, Hibbert tends to bait guards into taking deep shots, counting on his length to disturb shooters’ rhythms once he sees them leave their feet. Hansbrough tends to overplay guards in switch situations, often leaving himself in danger of getting beat to basket. With 2.2 seconds Hibbert would have been hard-pressed to guard Bosh or Allen as well as a more athletic player can (Hansbrough switched from Bosh onto Allen on a screen). But David West is not significantly faster than Hibbert. Hibbert and his 7’ 2” frame and 7’ 9” wingspan could have guarded the inbounder, Battier, and made it extremely difficult to enter the ball inside of the three-point line—likely more difficult than West made it.
Taking a closer look at the play:
West is aware that he does not have any teammates assigned to protect the post, so he guards the inbounds pass to prevent the inside pass.
Bosh goes to set a down screen on Young, but that screen will never even need to be set, because Young stays back to prevent the alley-oop and forces Hansbrough to switch onto Allen.
Cole uses Bosh as he clears out of the paint and heads toward the three-point line, while Allen heads to the corner, and James begins his cut to the top of the key after Hansbrough has passed by him. Bosh moves toward the corner.
The ball goes to James as Allen is in the corner, Cole is out of the play but has taken his defender with him, and Bosh continues to move backwards to space the floor. James plants firmly and begins to cut to the hoop even before he has caught the ball, knowing that only the ghost of Roy Hibbert is protecting the rim.
Bosh continues toward the corner to draw Young further from the ball as James turns. George is clearly beat on the play after overplaying James, and Hansbrough is just turning his head and realizing where the ball is after focusing on chasing Allen to the corner.
Young tries to get back into the play to defend the rim. Hill is just realizing the ball has been inbounded. Hansbrough is too tight on Allen and cannot help. West is too far back to help. George’s only way of stopping James is to foul.
Young gathers himself to potentially stop contest James’ shot or foul him as Bosh cuts to the basket with just enough time to receive a pass from James and finish.
Young chooses to prevent the pass after faking that he was going to jump to contest James’ shot or foul him. George cannot catch up to James, and he is left with an open layup for the win. Game over.
If Hibbert were put into the all switch lineup, he would have ended up on Allen in the corner and wouldn’t have been in position to contest James’ shot. If Indiana had constructed its defense around their best defender, however, the result may have been different. As always, the game was not decided by this one play. Both teams fumbled away plenty of opportunities to ensure victory. Vogel could only draw up the defensive scheme; he couldn’t execute it himself. In the end, no one even mentions Hibbert if Indiana’s best perimeter defender forces the world’s best at-the-rim finisher to take a jump shot, but instead he ushered him to the rim where Hibbert’s absence was glaring.
Screen shots via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qC7g9n0edW0
Georgetown University Class of 2016