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MIAMI – Before Frank Vogel made the long walk down the corridor and into the interview room, there was LeBron James driving to the basket, breaking the hearts of these Indiana Pacers again and again. The coach of the Pacers leaned over his video coordinator's shoulder, squinted into the laptop and watched the breakdown unfold frame by frame on the final gasp of overtime.
All alone, James pushed past Paul George for the winning basket. All alone, James lay the ball off the backboard and into the net. Twice in the final 10.8 seconds of a 103-102 overtime loss, Vogel yanked center Roy Hibbert out of the game. Twice, James beat the Pacers on drives to the rim for layups. Twice, the NBA's Most Valuable Player found no resistance awaiting him at the rim.
The coach gone to the interview podium, his teammates showered and dressed, Hibbert made a vow to Yahoo! Sports.
Never again does he sit silently with something so important slipping away.
"I've grown as a player, this is my fifth year and maybe I need to start talking up more," Hibbert told Yahoo! Sports in the losing locker room. "They pay me [max-contract money] for a reason.
"I didn't say anything, and I wish I did. From now on, I need to speak up."
This is the kind of loss you never recover from in a series, the kind of giveaway that is so devastating when the defending champions come into these Eastern Conference finals winning 45 of their past 48 games. The Pacers won Game 1 and then gave it back to the Heat. Truth be told, they'll have to win five games in this series, because they won Wednesday night – only to lose.
The Pacers had done everything to steal Game 1, everything but what matters the most: Turn James into a jump shooter with the game on the line, or be damn sure there's a 7-foot-2 All-Star center awaiting him in his breathless pursuit of the basket.
James was genius – 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists – in the victory. Before George had to defend James on the final possession of overtime, he made three foul shots with 2.2 seconds left to give Indiana a one-point lead. Before the Pacers reached overtime, George made a wild 32-foot 3-pointer with .7 seconds left.
Nevertheless, James caught the inbound pass at the end of overtime near the free-throw line and George pushed too close to him, failing to honor the most important tenet of the moment: "We wanted LeBron to shoot a jumper right there," George said. "I was up too close to him."
Everyone will forever remember the seminal moment of the Pacers-Knicks conference semifinal series was Hibbert meeting that Carmelo Anthony dunk high in the air, blocking the ball and inspiring a game-closing run.
"I'm 100 percent sure [Hibbert] would've been there," George said.
Vogel worried about Chris Bosh's ability to make Hibbert chase him out to the perimeter to defend his jumper. The thing is, you'll live with a Bosh jump shot beating you. You'll live with him taking it. Nevertheless, the greatest player on the planet can't dribble once, march down the lane and make an uncontested layup at the buzzer.
When it was over, Hibbert desperately wished he had the chance, but make no mistake: He wasn't playing that "I-knew-I-would've-had-it" nonsense. If James had cradled the ball near his body, Hibbert knows he probably could've drawn the foul. Had James extended his reach to lay it on the glass, yes, Hibbert knows he could've blocked James' shot.
"But I'm not going to put it all on Coach," Hibbert said. "I gave up some possessions, some offensive rebounds. We wouldn't have been in that position if I had handled my business."
Hibbert is such a gentleman, but these are the moments when perhaps he needs to be obstinate. Two NBA coaches with strong playoff histories responded to a text message on the final plays of the game. As one coach said, yes, obviously Hibbert needed to be in the game. And what's more, on James' basket with 10.8 seconds left, "Don't switch [George] Hill onto LeBron. But also on the last play, [David] West did nothing on the in-bounder to discourage the pass to [James] or help on the drive. Awful."
On Hibbert sitting out those final plays, another playoff-tested coach texted: "Hard to justify after the previous possession when James attacked the basket."
Roy Hibbert hated those final moments on the bench, hated that such a telltale moment of the season had been decided without him. As a restricted free agent over the summer, he threatened to sign a four-year, $58 million offer sheet with the Portland Trail Blazers. Within moments of flying to Portland to sign the sheet, the Pacers told him to forget it, to fly into Indianapolis and take the four years and $58 million from them.
For Hibbert, there's such ownership of these Pacers, such a burden thrust upon him to make the most important plays in the most important moments of the season. It killed him to never get the chance on Wednesday night, to watch Sam Young substitute into the game for him only to miss the rotation on James' rolls to the rim.
"Two-plus seconds is plenty of time," James said later. "I only need one dribble to get to the rim."
One dribble and freedom awaited the four-time MVP at the rim. One dribble, the ball laid off the backboard, bedlam here at American Airlines Arena. "I was on attack when Hibbert was in the game," James said. "I was on attack when he wasn't in the game."
Maybe James would've scored over Hibbert, or maybe he would've made it to the free-throw line. Whatever, no one will ever know, and that promises to haunt these Indiana Pacers. Victories over the Heat are too precious to squander, too seldom ever within reach. Whatever mistake George made on the ball, whatever rotations that Young missed in the 7-footer's absence, this was a painful playoff loss for Hibbert.
Vogel had gone back to the video late Wednesday, and flickering images confirmed the truth: He had blown it.
Now, Roy Hibbert grabbed his iPhone and kept scrolling through an endless stream of messages flooding into the phone.
"A lot of opinions in there on whether you should've been in the game?"
"No comment," Roy Hibbert said with a sheepish smile.
Over and over on that video coordinator's laptop, the final 2.2 seconds made words obsolete. Frank Vogel had blown it and his All-Star center vowed to never let it happen again without speaking out on his own behalf.
Roy Hibbert didn't say a word to his coach on Wednesday night, but wished he had. Never again, he vowed. Never, ever again.
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