In theory, the way the Indiana Pacers approached LeBron James’s game winning shot on Wednesday night is defensible. Unfortunately for the Pacers, LeBron himself rarely is.
I’ve long felt the more complacent periods of LeBron’s time on the court come from his obsession with efficiency. Defenses that overload the strongside, such as Chicago and Indiana, do everything in their power to rope off the driving lanes and funnel offense where they want it to go. In doing so, they offer their opponents a window of opportunity on the weakside. That opening can be fleeting, though, particularly with quick rotations and active hands in passing lanes, and these teams are willing to take the chance that hot potato ball movement will lead to an open 3 or a backcut if it means presenting LeBron with a three man front as he drives to the rim. James knows where these weaknesses will happen, and he knows how to effectively exploit those holes before they open, but he becomes reluctant to put his head down and bull his way to the basket, particularly against a physical team against which he may or may not draw a foul on contact. He’ll instead float around the perimeter, surveying tectonic plates that constantly collide and separate, unable and unwilling to dip his toe in the magma. It’s likely the most efficient decision, as a slight break in the mountains gives way to a thunderous pass. The answers are generally easy for him, but they can be extraordinarily hard to come by — especially when Mario Chalmers is in full Wario mode, Joakim Noah is playing out of his skull and Shane Battier refuses to hit a three. And if the defense is on a string and the openings never come, it looks like LeBron is giving up, even though he’s simply doing what he always does: trying to make the best basketball decision he possibly can.
More than anything, that’s why Frank Vogel made a mistake in not having Roy Hibbert on the court for defensive purposes in the waning moments of overtime. His decision to sit Hibbert meant that LeBron’s eyes would get as wide as saucers. Without a rim-protecting deterrent, James knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he was going to do it. When James realized Hibbert was out of the game on Miami’s penultimate possession, before the Paul George free throws, his fixation on effectiveness crashed headlong into his excellence of execution. And after the Heat forced a George Hill switch onto LeBron, the result became a matter of time. James would get to the rim. He would score. If the Pacers were so foolish as to sit Hibbert again, James would again make them pay.
And he did. Suddenly, Vogel was the most overrated coach in the league, in the eyes of the more reactionary wings of basketball fandom. Truly, I believe Vogel made a mistake when he sat Hibbert the first time and was shocked to see him compound it on the final play. A generous person can see what Vogel was thinking, though. Chris Bosh was too much of a threat to take Hibbert out of the play by trolling the midrange, particularly given his effectiveness on long twos. Though Hibbert is a fantastic rim defender, his ability to rotate in time is questionable. The decision to go small allowed Indiana to switch any and all screens, which meant the Heat would catch the ball with minimal room to operate, if they were even able to get open long enough to make the catch.* Most importantly, Paul George is a fantastic defender in his own right.
*Why Tyler Hansbrough was on the floor is anyone’s guess.
There’s a manner to George when he’s matched up with the best, it seems, a certain aloofness in his step that straddles a clear line between his intent and the illusion of your free will. His complacency is merely predestination; he knows where he wants you and how to get you there, like the world’s handsiest bouncer. Equal parts preparation, anticipation and prestidigitation, George is able to settle into his defensive stance and achieve lockdown nirvana because he’s simply that good — and he knows it. On one particularly noteworthy possession, he thoroughly harassed LeBron for the first half of Miami’s offensive set, only to switch onto Dwyane Wade when Wade took control of the offense and prevent him from getting anything close to a quality look. As George frantically streaked about the perimeter, his entire body rendered a smirking challenge to the best players in the world. For much of the night, Indiana executed their defensive theory as well as can be expected against the Heat juggernaut. That success likely gave rise to the theory applied to the highest leverage plays of the game. It was reasonable for Vogel to believe that George at the point of attack and smaller, quicker backline defenders who could switch screens and more rapidly rotate into help position was the best combination for stopping the Heat on the final possession, when all that really mattered was forcing the Heat into the least likely shot possible (or, preferably, no shot at all).
That LeBron James made the same Paul George look like a scarecrow on the final possession of overtime is the latest proof of his ultimate power. Sam Young might as well have been the Tin Man, caught in creaking footsteps halfway between the desire to challenge LeBron’s layup somehow, someway and the harrowed resignation that James would have his way in the dying moments. When George overcommitted and found himself a half-step out of position, the Pacers were doomed. Against a mere mortal, the otherworldly George likely would have recovered enough to slow the drive to the rim. Young, for some reason spending the first half of the measure staring at Norris Cole’s glorious coif, might have had time to help, given another beat. When your mark is an amalgam of Olympian deity and liquid Terminator, though, recovery is not an option. Mistakes are amplified in concert with the earth-shattering chords of LeBron James, unleashed.
Vogel made a bad decision, all things considered. Hibbert is the linchpin of your defense, and he should be on the floor, particularly in a situation where defending the rim is of utmost importance. On the last possession in particular, the Pacers had the option of cheating Hibbert as far into the paint as they’d like. With 2.2 seconds remaining, the threat of a defensive three second call evaporates. This concedes the Bosh jumper to a large extent, but that’s certainly preferable to an unabated drive to the rim. Even prior to that, though, the choice to sit Hibbert allowed LeBron to perfectly match his concept of the optimal play with his innate abilities. With Hibbert gone, LeBron could take the game completely into his hands, knowing that to do so would be the best basketball decision.
Even gifted with an opportunity to win the game against suboptimal resistance, though, he still had to destroy a defense set to stop him. He made it look easy. It’s what he does.
Photo by waschbear via Flickr