In the afterglow of seven exhilarating games in the Eastern Conference Finals, one question stood out: What took so long for the Miami Heat to attack Roy Hibbert in the post?
The offensive gameplan for Miami on Monday night seemed simple. Gone was the reliance on perimeter jumpers, replaced by manic drives to the rim in an attempt to loft floaters over the vertically outstretched arms of Hibbert or smash the ball past his 86-inch frame and into the poor, abused rim. More over, the frantic leaps into the lane threatened to draw Hibbert past the event horizon of foul trouble, revealing the grand black hole in the middle of Indiana’s defense that his presence covers up. And in Game 7, it worked. Exactly 50% of the Heat’s field goal attempts came in the paint, their largest share since Game 1 of this series. The more proximate attempts at the rim, coupled with the presence of more Miami players stationed around the basket, correlated with an increase in offensive rebounding and second-chance opportunities.
Yet not all was gumdrops and ponies for the Heat on their forays to the hoop. By now, we’re all familiar with the rule of verticality; if a defensive player establishes a guarding position, he is entitled to the vertical space around him, regardless of whether or not he is in the restricted circle. It’s a fantastic rule that allows defensive players to make defensive plays at the rim so long as they’re already in position to do so. To my eyes, there’s no one better than Hibbert, a monolithic Grim Reaper set to shuffle loose your shot attempts from this mortal coil, at pushing the boundaries of that plane. Beyond his skill at and dedication to the craft, he’s established a reputation both as a player who’s very good at maintaining his verticality and as a player who’s making every attempt to use his verticality instead of trying to draw charges. As a result, attempts to drive at Hibbert, even for the very greatest players in the league, are often a 50/50 shot at the very best. Early in the game, Hibbert set the tone for such play, leaping slightly forward into the oncoming LeBron James, creating the contact and drawing no whistle. While Hibbert likely should have been called for a foul, his reputation and the borderline nature of the situation crystallized one of the largest problems in attacking the paint for the Heat. Yes, one might draw a foul on Hibbert, tacking on another star toward his final arrest at the hands of the Liberty City bench police. But one is just as likely to be ran over by a tank and have a helicopter come crashing down on top of the remains, with no whistle blown. And it’s (mostly) legal!
Like a seasoned poker pro in a heads-up tournament, then, the Heat looked to exploit any other advantages they could find, saving the higher volatility for a showdown they preferred would never come. With seven games to play and never trailing in the series, Miami had plenty of opportunities to find other ways to exploit Indiana’s defense and revert to their Flying Death Machine form. It wasn’t fear so much as it was caution, the overwhelming desire to avoid putting the game in the hands of others if at all possible. And it’s not as if the Heat completely abandoned going at Hibbert in the paint. They picked their spots and attacked when they felt appropriate, but it was apparent that challenging Hibbert was not a priority for the Miami offense. They would work to find other high efficiency chances, so long as time was on their side. They moved the ball at breakneck pace, swinging it from side to side in an effort to draw open even the slightest bit of space. They “settled” for open midrange jumpers, the kind of shots that Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh can thrive off of — if they’re falling. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and the rest of albatross company saw their fair share of open threes, threes, everywhere, nor any shot did drink. Through a combination of age, injury, proper defense from the Pacers and a healthy dash of variance, Dwyane Wade was unable to provide the necessary lift to get the Heat over a hump they couldn’t quite summit.
For all of their failings, though, Miami, had taken the chip lead over the course of the tournament. If a few cards had fallen their way, they very well might have eliminated Indiana without ever having to attack Hibbert. This wasn’t a failed gameplan, in the ultimate sense; it was rather close to working. It makes sense to go away from the strengths of your opponent, after all. Yet the Pacers were game, ready to re-raise any fancy check-raises by the Heat and able to fold a second-best hand when Miami had a monster. They’d lost ground relative to the even footing of the opening shuffle, but they were by no means in over their heads. Indiana had trusted in its process and its execution, and it shipped them right to the shore of Game 7.
When the blinds are high compared to the chip stacks in a poker tournament, the game changes. The strategies and tactics that made little sense earlier in the night become one’s best friend. Moving time, that special phase where the ever-increasing antes puts significant strain on those with few chips remaining, is a time of whirlwind aggression for those who wish to win the championship, not simply survive and move on for one more hand. These are the moments of terror that punctuate the monotony, where all one can do is make the best play possible and trust that the universe isn’t completely tilted toward the other. Skill disparities still matter, but they’re often left to the devices of probability. What seemed a last resort ages ago is now all you have left.
In Game 7, the Heat internalized that magmatic, flowing landscape and changed their approach. With just one game left, there was no longer time to pick at weaknesses, to try to seize a fortified feudal city with pitchforks and broomsticks. Instead, Miami chose to bring forth the hammer, shoving all their chips to the middle as the aggressor and letting the Pacers decide when they wanted to call the possible bluff. It was a strategy that put them at risk of elimination; if just one or two more calls against Hibbert goes the other way, perhaps Indiana is preparing to begin their match with San Antonio on Thursday. But the Heat trusted their process, even if it meant putting faith in a 60/40 proposition. They played the numbers, both on Monday and all series long. When their attempts to avoid the altercation in the middle were trumped, they showed that they can still dominate the most volatile of games. The final meeting between these two teams rewarded that aggression with plentiful free throw attempts for LeBron James and foul trouble for Paul George and Hibbert. There was no guarantee that would be the case, though. Given the sheer challenge in front of them, one can hardly blame the Heat for taking their allotted time to fully dissect the Pacers.
Photo by Earthwatcher via Flickr