The Indiana Pacers will play for their postseason lives on Thursday, entering Philips Arena for Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks trailing three games to two and sitting just one loss away from a first-round elimination that would have been utterly unthinkable three months ago, but has seemed damn near inevitable for the past two weeks.
Yes, the Hawks are the only team to make the 2014 playoffs with a losing record, finishing the regular season at 38-44, and coming into the playoffs without injured two-way centerpiece Al Horford. Yes, the Pacers came in as the No. 1 seed in the East, with home-court advantage assured throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, with the league's stingiest defense in terms of points allowed per possession, a pair of All-Stars in Paul George and Roy Hibbert, a feared and respected scoring power forward in David West, and a wild card in Lance Stephenson capable of changing games. Those disparities in ranking, reputation, record and top-level talent have not mattered in this series, due in large part to something very simple — the Hawks' style is tailor-made to exploit the way the Pacers play, and Pacers coach Frank Vogel has been reluctant to make specific adjustments to address that problem.
You're likely familiar with the schematic split at the center of this series. Ever since he took over for Jim O'Brien midway through the 2010-11 season, Vogel has relied on "smash mouth" basketball, a style predicated on playing two traditional big men at center and power forward at all times alongside big, rangy perimeter players. He keeps that traditional center — the 7-foot-2 Hibbert to start games, the 6-foot-11 Ian Mahinmi off the bench — near the basket, having him drop back into the paint rather than step up to contain pick-and-rolls.
Vogel believes in the importance of having a massive obstacle in front of the rim to block, alter and contest shots in the lane ... or, even better, prevent them from ever happening by influencing opposing offenses to take midrange jump shots. Having that deterrent/eraser behind them in the paint allows Pacers wing defenders like George, Stephenson and George Hill to play more aggressively on the perimeter, helping curb dribble penetration, reducing open 3-point looks and generally making it harder for offenses to function.
That "smash mouth" style has largely worked swimmingly, with the Pacers owning the stingiest D in the league in each of the last two regular seasons. That defense fueled the Pacers' ascent, from first-round fodder to second-round squad on the rise, to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last year and to the top overall spot in the East this year. And it has meant next to nothing in this series, because the Hawks aren't playing a "smash mouth" game. They're playing keepaway, or perhaps more accurately, Whack-a-Mole.
Mike Budenholzer's Hawks are pretty OK with you keeping your big man back to protect the rim, because that means he's not at the 3-point line, where they are. They put shooters all over the floor, playing lots of five-out sets, where everybody is stationed around the perimeter, or four-out sets, where one Hawk is on the interior and the other four are around the arc. If you keep your big guys too close to the paint, their big guys — range-shooting fours Paul Millsap and Mike Scott, along with stretch-five Pero Antic — will not hesitate to pop those long-range jumpers.
Once they hit a few, your big guys start having to come out a bit further on the floor to defend them, removing that at-the-rim obstacle and creating wide-open spaces for ball-handling slashers like Jeff Teague and Lou Williams to get to the tin if they can beat their perimeter marks. Once the guards get into the lane, some other defender will rotate down to prevent an uncontested layup, which leads to kickouts to left-behind shooters outside, allowing guys like Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll to profit off chaos-created rotation lapses.
It doesn't always work — witness the second half of Game 2, in which the Hawks shot 29.3 percent from the floor and 2 for 13 from long distance en route to a 101-85 loss, or the second half of Game 4, in which the Hawks shot 28.2 percent from the floor en route to a 91-88 loss. But when it does — as it did in the Hawks' 107-88 regular-season blowout win in Indy, or in Game 1, or in the second half of Game 3, or in the second quarter of Game 5 — it's pretty damn effective, and it's got the Hawks 48 minutes away from a shocking trip to Round 2.
Given how successful Atlanta's been with spreading out and bombing on Indiana's big "smash mouth" lineups — and how abysmal Hibbert's has been in this series, averaging less than five points on 31.3 percent shooting and 3 1/2 rebounds in 22 minutes per game, with the Pacers being outscored by nearly five points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and outscoring Atlanta by more than three points-per-100 when he sits — it would stand to reason that the Pacers should play fewer "smash mouth" lineups, and specifically fewer minutes with Hibbert on the floor.
Vogel did curtail Hibbert's minutes in Game 5, spotting his big man just 12 minutes of burn in which he failed to score or grab a rebound, and keeping Hibbert planted firmly on the bench during a fourth-quarter comeback fueled by small-ball lineups featuring heavy doses of George, a two-point backcourt of Hill and C.J. Watson, and a more mobile, floor-spacing big man in Chris Copeland alongside West or Stephenson. That continued a series-long trend: all of Indiana's best, most successful lineups have parked Hibbert on the pine, whether in favor the West-Luis Scola pairing, one of those two alongside Mahinmi and three ball-handling/shooting wings or, as was the case late in Game 5, Copeland out there in a bombs-away response unit.
Vogel's course of action is clear, and in the afternoon before Game 6, his All-Star small forward called for it, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
"We're in Game 6 now, it's time to just switch things up," George said Thursday afternoon after the Pacers' shootaround, "and play a little smaller." [...]
"The way they play defense, they understand that they're small and they're going to double team, they're going to trap, they're going to pressure up because we're playing big," George said. "So to negate that, we have to play small and play their way." [...]
"It's just so unique, they play with five guys on the perimeter," George said about Atlanta. "You got to match up with their speed. We got to be able to attack them off the bounce and create as well off the bounce."
Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes.
As his tradition, Pacers coach Frank Vogel would not reveal this early in the day if he had made changes to the lineup.
"We'll see," Vogel said.
"Coach has his thoughts, and his numbers guys, and he says the starters are a plus-5 whenever we're out there, so he's sticking with us, as far as I know," Hibbert said during shootaround.
We don't know exactly which numbers Vogel's referring to — the Pacers, a smart and analytics-savvy team, surely have their own proprietary numbers and models — but for what it's worth, the George-Hibbert-Stephenson-Hill-West lineup that outscored opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions during the regular season is a minus-1 in 72 minutes in this series. And while Hibbert's play has clearly been a problem, this, again, is a schematic, structural, styles-make-fights issue — the starting lineup with Mahinmi in Hibbert's place is minus-10 in 16 minutes, too.
The smaller lineups have been better, and it hasn't been especially close, and everybody — including, now, George — recognizes it. In fact, as Jared Wade of 8 Points, 9 Seconds sees it, it seems like the only one who's having trouble recognizing that is the one guy who needs to most:
Game 6 will be all about whether or not Vogel can accept that what has worked so well in recent years won’t work here. Against the Hawks, the smash mouth strategy has failed miserably while the smaller, quicker lineups have worked better on both ends of the floor. And the spread offense has helped create the type of ball movement and open shots that this team has struggled to manufacture all season.
If Vogel is willing to play Game 6 like that, the Pacers should win. Of course, anything can happen in basketball; Mike Scott could hit five three-pointers in a quarter again. So nothing is guaranteed. But we have seen, by and large, over the past five games that the Pacers traditional style of play is nearly guaranteed to fail.
Instead, Vogel must abandon his principles and trust his players. He must give them freedom on offense and the personnel they need to defend. He must do something that goes against his own basketball philosophy.
Game 6 isn’t the Pacers vs. the Hawks. It’s Vogel vs. himself.
If Vogel loses the fight and the game by continuing to coach with blinders on, this could be the end of the Pacers' season ... and possibly the end of the Pacers as we know them.
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