- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Mornings like these make the NBA so much fun, especially when the debate touches on concrete strategy rather than abstractions.
On the surface, whether Pacers coach Frank Vogel should have left Roy Hibbert on the floor during crucial, late-game defensive possessions is a binary decision, but several factors govern Vogel's strategy in that situation. Although I'm strongly with the majority opinion that says when defensive possessions matter most you have your best defenders on the floor, the doubts implicitly expressed by Vogel when he left his 7-foot-2 center on the sideline must also be addressed.
If Vogel decides to not match down to the Heat's smaller lineup, here are a few fun counterfactual strategies to consider -- some more sensible than others.
With 2.2 seconds left, an NBA defense is immune from a defensive 3-second call and can effectively zone up against any play. A zone defense is vulnerable to all kinds of hazards, open shots most prominent among them, because the goal is to guard space rather than individuals. Not having a specific guy tasked with defending specific scorers is risky, especially if one of those scorers is named LeBron James. But the Pacers are uniquely equipped to run a matchup zone for 2.2 seconds. Place Hibbert inside the circle, match up Paul George on James and zone the back side of the floor. The Pacers have some of the most capable, long-armed gap defenders in basketball and close space on shooters better than any team in the league. Zoning up would take away just about anything at the rim, though it would leave the Pacers vulnerable to a potential midrange shot from Chris Bosh -- a pretty reasonable trade-off, if not an ideal one.
Too dangerous, especially since the most prolific long-distance shooter in history is licking his chops on the weak side? Then how about not guarding the inbounder, Shane Battier, leaving Hibbert underneath and going with a man-to-man defense on the other four Miami players? It's a tough call, because ball pressure is essential and, as every coach at every level preaches, somebody must account for the inbounder once the ball is put in play. But let's replay the possession with Battier passing the ball in to James as he did Wednesday night. James is a willing passer and could conceivably return the ball to Battier, who stands 30 feet from the basket, with 1-point-whatever seconds remaining on the clock. It's safe to say that's a shot the Pacers can live with.
If you're not feeling the zone strategy and you also believe, as Vogel did, that Hibbert's lack of mobility was too much of a liability against a fast-moving, screen-heavy set with multiple shooters on the floor, then consider assigning Hibbert to cover the inbound pass. Approximately 2.5 million people were in Miami-Dade last night. If you asked Battier to list in descending order those he'd least like to see standing in front of him as he prepared to throw the ball inbounds to a Heat teammate, it's a good bet Hibbert would have been at the top of that list. The best use of Hibbert is still near the basket, but if he makes you nervous at the top of the circle when you know a back screen for Bosh is on the way, why not put him to some use by allowing him to disrupt an inbound pass then race after the ball for a possible block from behind?
Let Hibbert sink or swim. Those defending Vogel's decision have a point -- a down screen for Bosh is a tough switch for Hibbert. But there are creative ways to play it: (1) Have Lance Stephenson switch on to Bosh, as he did. (2) Have Hibbert drop immediately to the paint. (3) Have David West, who was guarding the inbounds pass, switch on to Allen as he sprinted to the sideline since he was effectively there. Again, Battier would be the open man, but at 30 feet or so.
The Pacers outlasted their rivals in the East because they brought length, speed and versatility to the defensive end and had the rim protection provided by Hibbert. For nearly 100 games, Vogel has stayed true to that formula, but he had a crisis of faith when it mattered most. On Wednesday night, perfect defense was the enemy of the good defense.
It didn't help that his best man defender, George, got annihilated so quickly and absolutely. Had Hibbert been standing at the rim, it's easy to imagine James shuttling a pass to Bosh for the duck-in or kicking the ball out to another shooter. Credit James for presenting that kind of challenge. For years, critics have killed him for not wanting to take the last shot, but ask yourself this:
If James were an I'm-shooting-at-all-cost player, would Vogel have been so concerned about the supporting cast that he would leave his rim protector on the bench out of fear of an open shooter?