If only the Indiana Pacers employed a lengthy, defensive-minded center that could patrol the paint down the stretch of close games.
Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel shockingly decided to remove all-world defender Roy Hibbert from his lineup in his team’s two most crucial possessions of the season on Wednesday night, and the Miami Heat took advantage while winning Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Two different times, down the stretch of overtime, Heat MVP LeBron James slashed to the rim for easy lay-ins, as Hibbert could only look on from the bench while Vogel went with reserve wing Sam Young to “counter” Miami’s small lineup.
After Pacer All-Star Paul George tied the game following James’ first slash with three clutch free throws to hand the Pacers a one-point lead, LeBron James responded with the spin move and game-winning lay-up over … Sam Young.
And not over Roy Hibbert, considered by just about everyone else in the NBA (save for his own coach, at least on this Wednesday night) to be the most important part of the NBA’s best defense in 2012-13.
Miami showed some rust in Game 1, as it did during the team’s second round matchup with the Chicago Bulls after an eight day layoff earlier this month, but the seven day layoff between their conquest of the Bulls and this pairing with Indiana was entirely different. Indiana is working with the same lineup they’ve known since last October, and they match up terrifically with a Heat team they topped in two out of three regular season meetings.
The Pacers had their breaks in this Game 1 near-win – Paul George hit a ridiculously lucky game-tying three-pointer to send the contest into overtime, and George was fouled late in overtime to tie the game once again before James’ game-winner – but the near-even score should be considered a statement, and not a fluke. Indiana is just the sort of team to play Miami to a veritable draw, even while in Florida.
Here's George game-saving shot to keep his team alive at the end of the fourth quarter:
James came through with perhaps the quietest 30-point, ten-rebound, ten-assist game in NBA playoff history, while co-star Dwyane Wade seemed refreshed on his way toward 19 points. On the other end, David West took advantage of a lacking Heat frontcourt while piling up 18 first half points (and 26 overall), and Paul George showcased a significant amount of moxie on his way toward a team-high 27 points. George had his hiccups down the stretch of regulation, but by and large he was taking chances in the face of a Heat team designed to shut down athletes of his caliber.
Because this was a stalemate, though, the scrutiny falls on the novelty that ended the game.
Hibbert was on the court when the Pacers hit the floor on the defensive end with the game tied and 24.6 seconds left in overtime. After seeing Miami’s lineup, though, Pacer coach Frank Vogel decided to pull his center for Sam Young, and LeBron James immediately went to work on Indiana’s “SWITCH EVERYTHING!”-defense, taking advantage of George Hill and scoring a lay-in over Young.
The Pacers followed with a broken play that led to Wade slapping George’s arm as he went up for a three-pointer, and the Indiana All-Star nailed three out of three free throws with 2.2 seconds left to put the Pacers up one.
Which led Vogel to, once again, put Hibbert on the bench.
James responded with a brilliant, lightning-fast lay-up to win it at the buzzer. There’s no guarantee that Hibbert would have stopped a shot like that, or even been able to rotate and cover a move like James’ in that instant. Or that he would have even been able to deter James from driving, much less finishing.
Still, Roy Hibbert would have helped. Any part of him – his length, his side to side movement, his intelligence, or just his presence – would have helped.
Scouting helps, in this league, and Frank Vogel has one of the bigger brains in the NBA. He routinely advises his team mid-game of which play is coming next, and he brings a video operator’s knowledge, a leader’s wisdom, and a fan’s passion to the head coaching gig he so richly deserves.
He dropped the ball, though, twice. Twice in a game that may have been Indiana’s best chance to win on the road, and change the shape of this series.
It’s now Frank Vogel’s job, as that leader, to convince his men that Game 1 wasn’t Indiana’s best chance to take a game in Miami, and that their best days are ahead of them. It’s his job to convince them that Game 2 will be just as close. And that they’ll be back for Game 5. And that a Game 7 could be in the offing.
After his late-game moves in Game 1, though, he’ll have to convince more than his players that he’s up to the task.