Roy didn’t watch the end of it, really. One never does. His eyes turned towards the basket as tragedy unfolded, of course, but none of what he saw breached the gap between sight and mind. The noise of the crowd struck into his heart all the same. And when the court and its inhabitants celebrated, the part of his soul invested in the last three hours of his life experienced a horrible death of realization.
He whispered something and Ian Mahinmi turned to him, their sweat meeting between chairs like shared tears.
“Well, fuck.” said Ian.
Roy turned away and shook his hand. His eyes rolled and he thought of all the other possibilities that could have occurred and never could now. In a million other alternative universes Roy was on the court and no one wondered why he remained sitting. The arena shook and cried and thousands of Heat fans left in the throes of mild depression. But no other world could exist for Roy now.
In the locker room he met with eager reporters and did his best to answer the same question with all the flavor of a hundred prepared answers.
“Why weren’t you out there on the last play?”
I don’t know.
“What did Coach Vogel say to you?”
He said I wouldn’t be out there.
“What did you think when he took you out?”
Well, I thought a lot of things. But I understood.
After the repetition of every thought said and unsaid, they allowed Roy’s departure. That night he gratefully slept with the television off and the clock ticking louder and more often than any standard clock ever should.
When he arrived at the Pacers’ facility the next morning, Frank smiled as he approached and took Roy aside, with a light back pat and particular strides.
“So how are you this morning?” Frank asked.
“Fine, just ready to get back at it. Had some pancakes this morning. That helped.”
Frank laughed a bit too loudly and continued.
“You get any sleep?””
“Not much, Roy. Not much.” Frank scratched his head.
“We’ll get the next one.”
Both of the men believed their words and so Roy began to drift away.
“You’ll be in there next time, Roy.” Frank’s voice called firmly behind him.
Roy smiled and assured him that his trust remained in any case.
“I’ll make whatever play you need me to make, Coach.”
“I know you will,” Frank said.
And both men knew these things were true.
Soon the team reviewed the tape. Together resolves were made to save a season and all the rest of it. They were very much alive in this series, they said. They were very much alive.
Roy left at 6 and exited into the Miami wind. He felt the breeze belonged to him as he moved and his spirit calmed. In the distance a Florida state flag waved, and Roy’s mind waved back in rebellion. He spotted the bus that would take him back to the hotel in the distance.
He believed in this moment that he could glide through the world with a strength no other human possessed. A neutral observer might have agreed.
But in another day and another night, the world would change again. And that, well, that was the trouble.
For the past 36 hours, criticism has been raining down on Frank Vogel and his decision to keep Roy Hibbert off the floor for the two final defensive possessions of Wednesday night’s loss to the Heat. That rain of criticism has also sprouted a veritable forest of Vogel defenders, arguing that the ability to switch everything on those possessions was imperative and thus necessitated gluing Hibbert to the bench. I’m assuming that anyone who finds their way to Hardwood Paroxysm early on a Friday morning already knows that both possessions resulted in layups for LeBron, securing their one point margin of victory. I’m also assuming that you’ve already read at least a handful of various opinions falling on both sides of the issue.
The argument about whether Vogel properly evaluated the situation, weighed the variables and made the correct tactical decision is irreparably influenced by the results. Even in such a simple and brief situation, there were a hundred different scenarios that could have manifested, leaving the Pacers’ lead intact. If any of those had actually happened, criticism of Vogel’s decision would been rendered almost entirely moot. In that context it’s a little unfair that he’s under the microscope because Paul George overplayed LeBron so badly on the catch and that Sam Young volunteered no resistance to his layup attempt.
If Hibbert had been on the floor he very well may have been unable to prevent a basket. LeBron had an angle, a head of steam and all the prerequisite finishing ability to lay that one in, regardless of who was in front of, or beside him. Even if Hibbert had been able to get his body between LeBron and the basket, dissuading him from a shot, he could have easily dumped it off to Bosh for 12-footer. Here’s the rub, those two outcomes are exactly what the Pacers’ defense is built on. If there’s going to be a shot at the rim, they’ll make it difficult. But if they can force you to take a mid-range jumper they’re even happier.
But that’s neither here nor there. Evaluating the situation in either direction seems defensible to me, although the ultimate outcome lends more credence to the argument for keeping Hibbert on the floor. I think arguing this point misses the main issue – I’m not sure Vogel should have been deciding based on the exact confines of this situation. If that statement feels ludicrous to read, trust me, it feels just as ludicrous to type.
By looking at that scenario and making a decision on just what lay in front of him, Vogel forced the Pacers away from their principles. Not their micro X’s-and-O’s principles, but their macro ‘this-is-how-we-do-business’ principles. All season long the Pacers’ defense has been playing the percentages. They make opponents to take tough shots and they live with the results. They survive miraculous makes because they know that in the long run the percentages will settle in their favor. However he evaluated the X’s-and-O’s, Vogel’s option to adjust for the Heat went counter to how the Pacers have approached nearly every opponent all season long.
It may be somewhat obtuse and short-sighted for me to suggest ignoring the very real demands of a specific situation in pursuit of higher, over-arching ideals. But that’s precisely what the Pacers have done this year. They don’t adjust to you. You adjust to them. The run their best five guys out there and dare you to beat them. If you do, they dust themselves off and dare you to run it back. They make you shoot over and around them. They take what you do best and make you uncomfortable doing it, in a way that’s splendidly predictable. Everything the Pacers defense has stood for this season would have been represented by parking Hibbert in front of the rim and letting the chips fall where they may.
When Vogel pulled Hibbert he was delving into a world of philosophical and tactical dabbling that he’s mostly stayed away from in his brief coaching tenure. The Miami Heat are an entirely different animal than the Knicks or Hawks. Moxie, fortitude and resoluteness may not be enough. But when Vogel started tinkering with his team’s identity, it made me more than a little uncomfortable. The Pacers are a process team, but I think the moment got the better of him and he was caught chasing results.
As I said above, criticizing this decision after the fact is complicated because we all know what happened. Perhaps Roy Hibbert’s presence wouldn’t have made a bit of difference and the Pacers were doomed to failure on that possession, regardless of what decision Vogel made. But if their destiny was set, I’d rather have seen them take the loss while holding fast to their principles and not compromising their basketball core.
If defense alone won championships, the Indiana Pacers would be considered serious contenders for the Larry O’Brien trophy. However, scoring is also fairly important to winning games, and it is in this area, specifically in clutch situations, that the Pacers struggle, as we can see in the chart below, which shows Indiana’s record in the clutch when they are either tied or behind.
Indiana’s problems in those winnable situations come not from talent, but rather from execution.
Here, the Celtics have just stormed back to tie the game on the heels of a 9-0 run. The ever-pendulous momentum has swung in favor of Boston, and all seems lost. Yet the Pacers faithful are unwavering in their belief of this team, and they rise as one to cheer what will surely be the basket that cauterizes the suddenly open wound. They hope, no, they know, that salvation will come in the form of a…Roy Hibbert long distance two pointer?
The first problem with this set, before the two bungled screens, before Roy Hibbert’s ill-fated heave, is timing. The Pacers wait until halfway through the shot clock to finally initiate their set. If they were ahead in this game, burning down the clock might make sense. But at a time when Boston’s offense and defense are clicking on all cylinders, it doesn’t seem like the soundest of strategies.
David West tries to set a screen for Hill, but Hill never gives his big man time to get set. Instead, Hill darts towards the right side, with defensive savant Avery Bradley sticking with him every step of the way.
Hill: “Oh, my bad, David. Here, let’s try that again”
Hill takes the ball back out, finally allowing West to set a proper screen. Except, he doesn’t.
Hill: “Nice, that’s what I’m talking ab-wait, why’d you slip? Well, OK, I guess I’ll just turn the corner and oh! Hey, Jeff, nice to see you. Really, I think it’s tremendous that you’re back on the court after everything you went through last season. It’s just such an inspiration to me.Wait, since you’re hedging pretty hard on David’s screen that means Garnett rotated to David, which means Roy should be flashing at the free throw line. I should get him the ball.Then again, Jeff, we so rarely get the chance to-oh, you’re going to cover Roy? Well, it was nice talking to you, are you free for a beer after the game? Shoot, now Roy isn’t as open as he was before.”
Hill has given Green enough time to recover back to Hibbert, closing off what could have been a driving lane for Hibbert to either score or suck in the defense and pass out. Instead, he’s forced to take a free-throw jump shot that clangs off the iron.
In this set against the Lakers, Paul George sets an initial screen on Antawn Jamison, and then streaks to the far side to set up shop in the right corner.David West then sets a screen on Steve Nash, freeing up Hill to drive into the lane.
Once Hill picks up his dribble, he has two decent options: pass the ball to George, soon to be open for a corner three, or pass the ball to David West who is just inside the three point line.
Hill, already looking in West’s direction, chooses the latter option. Paul George is still open.
West decides to reset, and gives the ball back to Hill, as they run a 1-4 pick and roll. Paul George is still open.
Jamison and Nash trap Hill, so Hill passes it to West. Steve Blake rotates to West, which now leaves both Stephenson and Paul George open. However, rather than making the smart play, West turns and finds himself greeted by none other than Dwight Howard, arms outstretched, as if he’s singing, “These arms of mine/they are longing/longing to swat you.” Paul George is still open.
West takes the jumper over Howard’s extended arms, and misses. Paul George is still open.
Sometimes, it’s just a case of missing the opening man, and making a poor decision as a result.
Lance Stephenson starts out with the ball, while West sets a screen for him up top. Paul George and George Hill, they of the boy band “George George,” are firmly entrenched in the corners.
Stephenson gives West the ball just to the right side of the top of the circle. West surveys the field, or at least appears to be, as Stephenson darts along the backside of West on a cut to the basket.
As this is happening, West passes the ball to Paul George, while Roy Hibbert comes up to set a screen for George.
Though George now has his defender, Mike Dunleavy, on his back, he’s also confronted with the length and all around might of LARRY SANDERS! George is thus left with two options, since trying to go mano-a-mano against SANDERS! is a pretty awful idea: he could pull up, a high-difficult, low-percentage shot, or he could get it a WIDE OPEN Lance Stephenson, either with a lob or a bounce pass around SANDERS! In a perfect world, one in which ACLs and Achilles’ tendons don’t tear, George would have found Stephenson.
Yet in our current world, knees are the worst, and George pulls up and gets his shot blocked by, you guessed it, MIKE DUNLEAVY!
George Hill has, by all means, had a tremendous season. He’s averaging career-highs in points (14.3), assists (4.7) and PER (16.7) with a True Shooting percentage of 56%. Still, even though Hill has had some stellar moments in the closing moments of a few games this year, he has, at times, struggled with late-game execution.
The action starts with 17 seconds left to play. Hill and David West run what looks to be a pretty simple pick and roll (also, hello there David West’s slightly illegal, oh-how-did-my-leg-get-all-the-way-out-there screen). Chuck Hayes, who is defending West, sags off his man and switches to meet Hill once he gets around the screen.
Hill, perhaps not realizing ol’ Chuck Wagon’s mobility, decides to drive right at him. Marcus Thornton then leaves Paul George to get in on the action, getting a hand in Hill’s face to bother him on his way to the rim. Why Thornton does this is a mystery, as it leaves Paul George, a deadly three-point shooter, wide open.
Tyreke Evans further compounds the Kings’ questionable defense by sagging way off of Lance Stephenson (cleverly semi-camouflaged in a sea of yellow in the corner) and collapsing on Hill as well. Again, that leaves Hill smothered by three defenders, while Paul George and Lance Stephenson are wide open for three pointers.
The smart play would be to pass it to either one of these players on the wings, but at this point, Hill, driven by Robert Frost, chooses the road not taken, and goes for a lay up, which promptly gets blocked by Chuck Hayes.
Indiana’s combination of talent and defensive prowess will likely be enough to get them out of the first round of the playoffs. However, if they want to advance further and truly become a contender, it is essential for them to fix their late-game execution issues.
Paul George watched the tape. He relived last season’s playoff defeat to the eventual champion Miami Heat. He endured LeBron James’ 40, 18 and nine in Game 4, Dwyane Wade’s 41 and 10 in Game 6 and a 32-point Heat blowout in between. But what was on his mind, looking at the losses again?
“How much I let the team down by not being aggressive,” George says.
It’s evident that George feels he’s capable of more. More than what he provided during that series, more than what he’s shown so far in his two-year NBA career. He drastically improved his three-point shooting from 29.7 to 38.5 percent last season, but now he’s aiming for All-Stardom. This means making plays against a defense like Miami’s in the halfcourt. This means seeking out a dribbling coach in the offseason.
“My whole summer was dedicated to that series,” George says. “A lot of things that I watched on tape that I could’ve done, that I didn’t do, all came down to not being confident dribbling the ball, so that was something I spent a lot of time doing this summer … Now I’m confident. I’m a confident player now.”
George compared himself to Tracy McGrady when he came into the league. At 6-10, George moves like someone six inches shorter and sees over most of his defenders on the wing. If you add a tight handle to that sweet stroke, it’s easy to imagine a star. And at informal Pacers workouts in September, he showed his team what he’d been working on. “I really tried to take it to another level and I was able to get to the lane, I was able to create for my teammates,” George said. “Almost everything that they haven’t seen at a high level, I was doing on a consistent basis.”
That extended into the preseason, where Indiana head coach Frank Vogel gave George a longer leash. He wanted the 22-year-old to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them. George shot 37 percent on a team-high 13.1 shot attempts per game in seven exhibition games, including a 6-for-21 night in Orlando. He also averaged 3.4 turnovers, up from 1.8 last season, but that wasn’t the point. Here’s the point, according to George: “Just learn what works and what doesn’t, how to get shots. Being able to shoot a volume number of shots helps you understand what shots you can take and what shots you have to work on.”
Now that the regular season is here, Vogel doesn’t want to see errors in decision-making.
George isn’t going to be these Pacers’ No. 1 option, not with Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and David West on the roster, but he should still play as assertively as an All-Star. Indiana’s best attribute is its balanced attack and Vogel doesn’t want to see George fade into the background. With Granger sidelined indefinitely due to knee soreness, that becomes even more important. George hates to see his teammate out of the lineup, but recognizes the opportunity it presents. “It’s pressure that I wanted,” he said. “Coming into the season, I wanted pressure so I guess this is a great way to start it.”
Before the Pacers’ season opener in Toronto, George watched an interview with Kobe Bryant. Then he watched it again, thinking back to his time spent with the USA Basketball Select Team in Las Vegas in July, scrimmaging against Bryant and the rest of the Team USA squad that went on to win Olympic gold. It was a challenge on both ends of the floor and it was an opportunity to learn.
“This whole year for me I think has been the greatest preparation I can get in preparing for this season,” said George. “Being around Kobe, LeBron, Durant, Melo, seeing those guys’ regimen and how they prepare just for practice. You know, it amazes me. That’s the group that I want to be in the category with.”
George started out on fire against the Raptors on Wednesday, scoring Indiana’s first four points of the game and 10 points in eight minutes. He converted five of his first six field goal attempts and did so in a variety of ways, demonstrating his face-up jumper in the mid-post, his step back off the dribble and his ability to attack the basket. At the same time, he forced DeMar DeRozan into an 0-for-5 start. It seemed like George was headed for a monstrous night.
That didn’t turn out to be the case, though. George scored only four points the rest of the game and added four turnovers to the one he committed in the first. The second half was the David West show, with the power forward scoring 21 of his 25 points after halftime, including 14 of the Pacers’ last 20. West made the game look simple with his pick-and-pop game and led Indiana back from a 10-point deficit halfway through the final frame. He, along with George Hill’s game-winning floater with 2.2 seconds left in the game, turned out to be the story.
That isn’t to say George disappeared or disappointed. He had nice chemistry with West in the two-man game, was a disruptive presence on defense and continued to hit the glass when shots stopped falling. George only scored four points after the first quarter, but finished with 15 rebounds and five assists, an integral part of the 90-88 win.
“I thought he was great,” said Vogel. “You know, I thought he started strong and when you’re going good you maybe get a little bit overaggressive, so he had a couple stretches where he over-penetrated and did a little too much with the basketball in terms of his driving and his dribbling, but playing 35 minutes and getting 15 rebounds, that’s a big time effort. That’s a big time effort, so I was very impressed with him.”
George said it was a conscious decision to hit the glass after watching the Bryant interview. “He talked about how his motor, at my age … he was amazed at how much his motor [ran] and how much he kept going throughout the game. And I thought to myself, I mean, there’s no way that I can’t add that to my game. And I just want to bring it every night. If I’m scoring the ball, I’m scoring the ball. If not, there’s other ways I can get my team a win and that’s rebounding.”
You can learn to balance confidence and conscientiousness. You can have high standards, then have a short memory if you fall short. Moments after a private pregame pep talk with Vogel, George talked of passing up good shots for great ones. After scoring 14 points on 15 shots, he wasn’t too proud of the performance.
“[There were] a lot of shots that I made tough that I could have made a lot easier,” George said. “But again, that’s me growing. Just me growing, watching film, seeing how I can make the game that much easier for myself. But my teammates set me up for great looks.” As he expresses his disappointment that he didn’t get to the free throw line, assistant coach Brian Shaw loudly interrupts: “Fifteen rebounds!”
“I’ma average that,” George says, half-serious, then repeats the bold, if questionable, claim. He expresses his fully serious desire to make this year’s All-Defensive Team in his next breath.
One game into the season is far too early to know what George will add to his repertoire or resume in 2012-2013. It’s too early to know how much of his summer studying will translate on the floor. But while there’s no shortage of players who have talked about improving since last year’s playoffs, George has shown some signs. With him, there has always been plenty of promise. And hearing George talk about his goals and expectations, it seems there’s something he might have in even higher supply: motivation.