Pacers coach Frank Vogel is under heavy scrutiny today for his lineup decisions in the waning moments of the Pacers-Heat game. With Indiana on defense, Vogel replaced 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert twice in the final 25 seconds of overtime. Both possessions resulted in LeBron James drives to the basket for easy layups. The first broke a 99-99 tie. The second, at the buzzer, won the game 103-102.
Hibbert has been a Miami thorn in the flesh for at least two seasons. He’s not the NBA’s best shot blocker, but he’s a good shot blocker. And Hibbert has learned to go straight up and dare opponents to shoot over him, which is a tall task.
So why not have him in the game? Well, Vogel at least had some rationale behind his decision. With Miami going small at those moments, Hibbert would have been forced to cover Chris Bosh, who is an effective shooter from all over the court. Chances are Hibbert wouldn’t have been stationed near the basket even if he’d been on the court and might not have reached the lane in time to bother LeBron. Or Bosh could have freed himself for an open shot. The best shot in the NBA is not determined by who shoots, but how open is the shooter.
Still, you don’t want to leave the basket unguarded, and if you get a chance to review those plays, you’ll see that few drives are so open. LeBron encountered a little resistance at the rim on the first one. He encountered no resistance on the second one, from anywhere.
“That’s the dilemma they present when they have Chris Bosh at the five spot and his ability to space the floor,” Vogel said. “We put a switching lineup in with the intent to switch, keep everything in front of us and try to go into or force a challenged jumpshot. We pushed a little bit too much. LeBron was able to beat us off the bounce.”
True enough. Clearly, the biggest mistake was not coaching. It was Paul George’s defense on the final basket. He overplayed LeBron, who caught the inbounds pass moving away from the basket, which is always what the defense wants. However, this is LeBron we’re talking about. He was able to stop and start and get back toward the basket in an instant. George overplayed LeBron. Went with LeBron full bore away from the basket and wasn’t in position to defend after LeBron caught the ball and rerouted.
Now, the first LeBron basket was a total mess for the Pacers. Yep, Vogel had a switching lineup in. And first thing Miami did was screen George, so suddenly George Hill was guarding LeBron. Uh-oh City. LeBron bulled right past Hill to the basket.
What could Vogel have done differently? Here are two options.
1. Double-team LeBron. Dwyane Wade had fouled out. Use David West, who was guarding the inbounds pass, as a hedge on LeBron. Let George dog LeBron just as he did, but with West lingering always between LeBron and the basket. LeBron going to the basket is among the surest scores in hoops. Make Miami do ANYTHING except let LeBron drive.
2. Keep Hibbert in the game and let him play centerfield. Put Hibbert in the middle of the lane, leaving the inbounds pass unguarded. That would leave Shane Battier open after inbounding the ball. He could toss the ball to LeBron and get it right back for an open, albeit hurried, 3-pointer. That’s if LeBron tossed it back immediately. If not, no time. I will take a quick Battier 3-pointer — his shot was off all night; 0-of-4, all on 3-pointers — over a LeBron drive every time if I’m the Indiana defense.