Times are hard for the Indiana Pacers. After a 102-90 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday, Frank Vogel's club now finds itself one loss away from elimination, facing a dreaded 3-1 deficit that has spelled curtains for the team on the short end of that stick 96 percent of the time in NBA playoff history.
Making matters worse, the Pacers lost Game 4 despite turning in a comparatively strong offensive game, bettering the Heat in made field-goals (35-32), field-goal percentage (49.3 percent to 46.4 percent), 3-point makes (nine to eight) and long-distance accuracy (42.9 percent from 3 to 33.3 percent for Miami). Even after scoring at a rate of offensive efficiency — 107.8 points per 100 possessions — that would have marked them as the league's eighth-most-potent scoring attack during the regular season, Indiana spent the lion's share of the second half trailing by double-figures. One reason why: the Heat were +19 at the free-throw line, a disparity that Pacers All-Star forward Paul George noticed and lamented during his post-game news conference. From Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
"Looking at the stat sheet, we outplayed them," George said. "You got to give them credit. They won this game at the free throw line. They really just were able to get to the line more than we were, but I thought we outplayed them tonight."
Then, George turned up the volume, and certainly the NBA will hear this.
"I mean, you can't tell me we don't attack the basket as much as they attack the basket," George said. "You can't tell me we're not aggressive. Maybe we're too aggressive. But I feel like we're just as aggressive as they are attacking the basket and making plays at the rim. Maybe this was just home cooking."
Here's more from George, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:
After George made several references to unbalanced officiating, he was asked directly if he thought the Heat benefited from favorable calls on their home floor.
He responded with a mix of sarcasm and frustration, saying, "What do you think?"
Then he talked about how deflating the whistles proved to be to his team.
"It's just demoralizing when [the free throws are] lopsided," George said. "I mean, I'm sorry to say, but that was the case. How rare is it we shoot 50 percent, turn the ball over around 13 or so times, outrebound a team, and lose a ball game? I thought we did a great job. I just thought we did a great job. ... But, again, they made 30 free throws, and that put them over the edge."
The NBA fined George $25,000 on Tuesday for his comments.
On one hand, yes, going 30 for 34 at the free-throw line will certainly help you win a ballgame, especially when your opponent goes just 11 for 17 from the stripe. On the other, though ... I mean, c'mon, Paul George.
In considering what put Miami over the top on Monday, it's perhaps worth mentioning that they were never once down below. The Heat took their first lead on a Chris Bosh jumper 18 seconds into the game, led 8-0 two minutes in after two Bosh triples, and never looked back. Bosh found himself freed up due in part to the insertion into the starting lineup of Rashard Lewis, who drew the defensive attention of David West, allowing Bosh to step out on the floor and find open space away from slow-footed interior defender Roy Hibbert; once he saw those barely contested early jumpers go down, Bosh was off to the races.
Lewis also made key contributions on the defensive end, as detailed by Miles Wray at Hoop365, as Miami found success in cranking up the pressure on their double-teams and on-ball traps. As a result, while Indy's total turnover number wasn't egregious, a Pacers team notorious for its predilection toward coughing up the ball — they turned it over on 15.8 percent of their possessions during the regular season, tied for the NBA's fifth-worst mark, after finishing 29th among 30 teams last season — struggled with the most dangerous type of miscue. Seven of Indy's turnovers were of the live-ball variety, the kind generated by Miami steals that allow the Heat to attack against an unsettled Pacer defense or run out in transition on the fast break, where James and company are absolute terrors.
Just as easily as George can point to Miami being +19 from the foul line as the prime difference in a game decided by 12 points, one could point to the Heat being +14 in points created off turnovers. In fact, after George's presser, someone did. His name is LeBron James.
"We did only have five turnovers, seven steals and 20 points off their turnovers," he said. "That has nothing to do with the free-throw line."
(It also might be worth noting that Indiana's taken seven more free throws than Miami in this series, including a +22 margin in the Pacers' Game 1 win. Maybe home cooking cuts both ways.)
There is one way in which the Heat's advantage had to do with the free-throw line, though, as Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin notes:
In Game 4, one factor that likely lent itself to Indiana getting called for a series high in fouls was Hibbert's relative lack of playing time. He was on the court for only 22 minutes due to a combination of ineffectiveness and his own four fouls, and his absence led to increased fouling by Indiana's other players.
Other than Lavoy Allen, who has played only 11 minutes, no Pacer has a lower on-court opponents' free-throw rate than Hibbert in the playoffs, and the Pacers have sent opponents to the free-throw line at an astronomical rate whenever Hibbert has sat during the postseason, per NBA.com. The same was true in the regular season—Indiana opponents rarely went to the free-throw line with Hibbert on the court, and they went all the time when he came out of the game.
It should come as no surprise that Miami attacks the basket [...] whenever Hibbert comes out, that they shoot better at the rim and that they draw more fouls, too.
Miami was also significantly better at generating open looks than Indiana, too:
And that's really been the key — a Pacers defense that led the league in points allowed per possession in each of the last two seasons has been utterly unable to slow down Miami's high-octane precision offense.
The Heat are averaging 111.5 points per 100 possessions in the Eastern Conference finals, a mark that would've blown away the Los Angeles Clippers' league-best offense during the regular season, and have cranked it up to an obscene 114-per-100 over the last three games. After dropping Game 1, the Heat have outscored the Pacers by a whopping 11.6 points-per-100; they've been utterly dominant on the offensive end, with Wade scoring 23 points in both Games 2 and 3, Bosh stepping up with 25 in Game 4, and James being consistently brilliant throughout. This series has been about Miami's offense overwhelming the best defense in the land far more than it's been about Hibbert's touches, or trash talk or whistles.
“We can’t control calls," Vogel said he told his team on Tuesday, according to NBA.com's John Schuhmann. "We got to control our turnovers, our shot selection, our passing, our defense.”
They've failed to do so, and that's why they're staring up at a death-sentence deficit.
In discussing teammate Lance Stephenson's perhaps-ill-advised pre-Game 4 comments about James' trash talk, George suggested that speaking out isn't always the wisest course of action:
"Sometimes you got to watch what you say," George said. "You're on the big stage. Everything you say is going to be bulletin board material. It's really going to have a powerful meaning behind it. We've just got to be smarter with situations and just voicing our opinion sometimes."
With the action heading back to Indianapolis for Game 5, George might do well to take his own advice going forward.
Video via frank den.
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