Tag Archives: Indiana Pacers

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Indiana Pacers

2012-2013 W-L: 49-32

New Places: DJ Augustin (Toronto), Gerald Green (Phoenix), Jeff Pendergraph (San Antonio), Miles Plumlee (Phoenix),

New Faces: Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, CJ Watson

Draft: Solomon Hill (23)

The Pacers were one win away from the NBA Finals last season.  That’s a fact.  How close – extremely, awfully or very – Indiana actually came to beating the Heat is open to interpretation.

Yes, LeBron James made a game-winning layup as time expired in the first of a series that went the maximum seven games.  But that line of thinking doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the how the Eastern Conference Finals played out in reality.  The Pacers pushed an injured Miami team farther than most anyone anticipated, but the champs responded with aplomb whenever their collective back was truly against the wall: they won games 3, 5 and 7 by 20, 11 and 23 points respectively.

So Indiana came close to dethroning the Heat, but “seven games” doesn’t convey the true state of that series.  Miami controlled the action not at will, but certainly something close to it.  Contrast that to the true ebb and flow of the NBA Finals: though each series went the distance, in which set of games did the Heat face real and consistent doubt?

It’s important going forward to put Indiana’s loss to the Heat in the proper perspective.  Why? The Pacers might be a much better team this season than they were in 2012-2013.

No coach has ridden his starters like Frank Vogel over the last two seasons.  Indiana’s opening quintet played the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league last year, and led the NBA in 2011-2012.  It’s no secret the Pacers have lacked a corps of reserves befitting the team’s status as almost title-contenders, and Vogel made up for it in the most straight forward way possible.

A quick glance at lineup data from last year’s playoffs shows that Vogel’s hand was basically forced. Of eight non-starter groups that played at least 20 postseason minutes, only two had positive net ratings. The remaining six were – only a crass adjective applies – slaughtered; the ‘best’ of those lineups managed a -12.7 rating, and four of them registered red numbers in the mid-20s.

Help was on the way next year even if Indiana mostly stood pat this offseason, but Kevin Pritchard wasn’t satisfied.  The Pacers used cap exceptions to sign Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, each of whom is a major boost off the bench compared to recent Indy reserves.  Copeland is a limited defender and a bit one-dimensional on offense, but gives Vogel an opportunity to experiment with small-ball, floor-stretching lineups.  History’s shown he’s reluctant to abandon the Pacers more traditional power forward/center post identity, but that another option exists is at least a nice ace in the hole.  Still, the on-court impact of Watson’s signing is likely bigger.  He’s no super-sub, but an upgrade on Augustin in most every way imaginable.  Indiana absolutely fell apart without George Hill on the floor last season, and that won’t be the case in 2013-2014.

But the biggest fish here is Scola.  The price Pritchard paid to get him – Gerald Green, 2012 first round pick Miles Plumlee and a future lottery-protected first-rounder – seems high on the surface, but needs proper context.  Green’s reclamation project flamed out by mid-January, optimistic projections for Plumlee suggest a player like Mahinmi, and a Pacers first-rounder – barring a major injury to one of their stars – will be in the 20s the next half-decade.  Scola’s clearly on the downside of his career, but still offers Indy’s second-unit a versatile offensive cog.  He can post-up, pick-and-pop and play effectively from the elbow.  Fulcrums like this can keep the bench afloat.

Pritchard’s summer activity is just icing on the cake, though; the Pacers were going to get better reserve play next season nonetheless.  The rise of Paul George and fun of Lance Stevenson made it easy to forget Indiana played last season without former All-Star Danny Granger, but the potential influence gleaned from his return can’t be understated.  He’s not Indy’s best player anymore and won’t be utilized that way, but that’s a good thing for the Pacers.  Granger was stretched thin as a primary offensive option in his peak years, and should thrive playing a more ancillary role with Hill and George doing the lion’s share of ballhandling.  In fact, there’s no reason he can’t be an ideal ‘3-and-D’ type should he commit to that identity; the Pacers need all the space they can get on offense, and allowing George time away from guarding the opposition’s best wing threat is prudent.  The biggest question now is whether or not Granger assumes his role as a starter.  While a reserve part seems the right one, Vogel’s bench will receive a major boon one way or another.  Stephenson, after all,  is poised for bigger things this season.

The Pacers are another year older.  They made offseason moves that improved on their biggest weakness.  And they have an All-Star returning from injury.  So they’ll be better this season, and considering the way last year ended – on the road at Game 7 – all that could mean Indiana should be favorites in the Eastern Conference.  But that wasn’t a typical seven game series, the Heat aren’t a typical team and LeBron James isn’t a typical MVP.  Context always, always matters, and it renders a prediction for 2013-2014 we’re all accustomed to by now: until proven otherwise, it’s Miami with a bullet in the East.

But there’s room for a real title contender just below the Heat in the conference pecking order, a team considered the favorite should things go awry in South Beach.  Boston, Chicago and the Pacers have been noted challengers the past three seasons, and New York’s teams long to hop in the ring.  If that separation comes this season, Indiana’s the one most likely to have emerged from the fray – this summer’s ensured it.  And until they meet Miami again, that should be enough for the Pacers.

Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shot Fiction: Chris Copeland Joins The Pacers

Photo from Iguanasan via Flickr

The air in the visitor’s locker room was stale and dejected. Although the New York Knicks had just completed what was objectively their best season in 14 years, the subjective left very little room for comfort.

The Knicks thought – no, they knew they were better than this Indiana Pacers team. It just so happened that the weaker squad punched the stronger squad in the mouth, a bad mixture of happenstance and physicality.

Alas, the 6 game Conference Semifinals became the final act, a harsh, brutal climax where Gotham poets envisioned but more crescendo. As those despicable Pacers celebrated in unity, going so far as to send all five starters together to the post-game interview podium, each Knick stood alone and awaited his fate. Mike Woodson stood in the corner, not nearly as talkative as a coach should be, his mind racing forward, trying to project which of his players he is seeing in the locker room for the last time.

A drenched Frank Vogel walked into the locker room. His eyes were triumphant, his smile clearly visible despite his attempts to conceal it under a cloak of professionalism. Most of the Knicks looked away; while Vogel had earned this visit and the perks to come with it, they were under no obligations to comply emotionally.

Vogel stood amidst defeat like a looter in a burned village, squinting his eyes as he strained himself towards a decision. This was the second year of existence for the NBA’s Ron Artest Provision, a controversial turning point of the 2011 lockout that allowed a winning playoff team to absorb one player off the defeated squad, taxed only with the burden of paying the acquired player.

The ruling caused a major uproar when it was instated – called a “kick to the groin of parity” by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and a “poorly executed offseason post gimmick” by lesser figures. But it passed nonetheless, and any chance of it being overturned died a painful death after the buzz and excitement caused by Miami snatching Ray Allen from Boston after the 2012 Eastern Finals. Any publicity is good publicity, or so seemed to be the thought process over at the commissioner’s office, and Vogel was now entitled to get his as he saw fit.

“C…”

Carmelo Anthony looked up; he expected to get called all along.

“Copeland.”

Stunned silence.

J.R. Smith stifled a pout. Tyson Chandler’s ice pack dropped. Mike Woodson’s face, always the microcosm for his teams’ moods, looked like he forgot Copeland was even on the team, an expression that had become all too common throughout the actual series. Even James White looked insulted.

Nonetheless, Vogel and Copeland walked out the door. “I won’t let you down, coach”, said the former 29 year-old rookie. “Partners from here on out”, the coach answered, as the Miami Heat loomed in the background.

Always A Bridesmaid

I’ve had three days to let it percolate, but the Pacers’ disastrous showing in Game 7 against the Heat still aches. As Evans Clinchy alluded to yesterday, their performance in the first few games quickly inflated expectations to an almost unrecognizable point. Going into the series I thought the Pacers had a chance, but not a large one. I had hoped they could push through to the NBA Finals, but my expectations were both probabilistic and pessimistic. On some level it’s silly to feel so emotionally thrashed just because what had I expected to happen two weeks ago, did indeed come to pass. But in a shining example of Bayesian fortitude the Pacers had changed the odds and converted my sense of rationality. Regardless of how over-matched they were on paper, or in practice, to begin the series, prior probabilities had been mutated. The Pacers had a real, significant chance to advance to the NBA Finals on Monday, but fell flat on their faces.

In the end, I can, and will, come to grips with the fact the my team’s season ended a little bit before someone else’s. I mean I’ve had nearly twenty years of experience grappling with this exact phenomenon. But I think what troubles me the most is a more nuanced awareness of memory and narrative. I’m afraid the fact that they lost Game 7, and the way in which they lost, robs them of their accomplishments. Not that they will be forgotten, but that they have been looted by the Heat. The Pacers built themselves up in a tremendous way but in doing so, may have served only to make the Heat’s victory more impressive.

There is a film genre known as hyperlink cinema, which include films like 21 Grams, Pulp Fiction, Babel, Magnolia, and Traffic. A central characteristic of these films and this genre is several parallel narratives, eventually binding themselves together in the service of a single unifying theme or message. In the beginning each character’s experiences and storyline is equal in value to every other and engagement is driven with the methodical revelation of how each piece fits together to create the larger image. It’s a beautiful and alluring method of storytelling and it works in especially successful ways when the overall message or theme is suitably and intrinsically profound.

In many ways the NBA has a similar narrative structure. Each season begins with 30 teams separately weaving together the individual narratives of their players, fans and organizations. As the regular-season progresses, those stories are melted together into a larger league-wide narrative. But as the playoffs begin those stories lose their individual identity more quickly and get folded into the remaining elements. The beautifully symmetry this process creates in film feels painfully reductionist in the context of the NBA. In cinema the end product is a lesson about a single, usually universal theme. At the end of an NBA season the narrative has been winnowed to the successful struggle of a single team, with everyone else standing as obstacles overcome.

The Pacers had an incredible season. They built an elite defense with effort and execution. They nurtured and cared for two budding young stars in Paul George and Roy Hibbert, and were rewarded with beautiful blossoms for their efforts. They forged an identity, ravaged the league’s lower tier, rebuilt a fanbase, and dashed the playoff aspirations of both the Hawks and Knicks. But in the end this season’s defining narrative will be the story of either the Heat or the Spurs. Everything the Pacers accomplished this year, everything they put in place to help them extend and embolden their playoff run is ultimately a part of someone else’s story.

If the Heat end up winning their second consecutive championship, the Pacers will stand in as their narrative arch-nemesis. In two straight seasons the Pacers will have pushed the Heat down and kicked dirt in their face. They are the stylistic antithesis of the Heat and have displayed all the requisite malice of an historically epic arch-villain. The Pacers provided the tension and the rising action, backing the Heat out onto the narrative edge from which only a monumentally heroic effort could save and redeem them.

All of those same  elements will hold true if the Spurs win the title, but the impact will be spun off in a different direction. Now the Pacers aren’t the arch-villain, but the tragically flawed third-wheel. They are the team that bloodied the Heat with a thousand tiny cuts, ripped back their veil of invulnerability, exposing their hubris and soft underbelly to the Lawful-Good protagonist Spurs; the team that in a hopeless battle against evil went out in a flaming blaze of glory leaving the Heat exhausted beyond recovery.

I’ll remember this Pacers’ season because of how it felt to watch. I’ll remember Lance Stephenson shedding his skin and emerging Re-Born Ready. I’ll remember the right side of Paul George’s face slowly being drawn up into a permanent snarl. I’ll remember Frank Vogel’s soothing confidence, David West’s shoulders and Roy Hibbert’s verticality. I’ll remember a defense that deserves a place in the annals of history and an offense, that for much of the season, deserved to be drowned in a bathtub. I’ll remember statistical nuance and emotional bludgeoning. But it aches that most of those things will fade for a public that paid the franchise notice for the first time in years. For the masses the Pacers will mostly be remembered as a final and stout, stage-setting, barrier foreshadowing the Finals to come.

The only thing more painful than a 23 point loss to end your season is knowing that it will ultimately be remembered not for ending your season, but as a conquered challenge in someone else’s.

A Vast Sea of Helplessness

bogenfreund | Flickr

Ed. Note: Evans Clinchy is a Bostonian and active member of the hoops blogosphere. He’s been covering the Celtics for nearly four years, with his writing appearing on CelticsBlog, NESN, and SI (among other places). You can follow him, his thoughts, and his writing on Twitter. He wrote this piece after the Pacers came up short in Monday night’s Game 7 against the Heat.

Quite possibly the most prevalent bit of NBA conventional wisdom, right up there with such nuggets of genius as “You can’t teach height” and “Defense wins championships,” is the idea that there’s nothing worse than being a middling team and falling into an endless loop of first-round playoff exits. Everyone knows the peril of basketball purgatory — if you’re too good to fall into the lottery and too bad to be a serious championship threat, there’s no way out, and you’re doomed to mediocrity forever.

The Indiana Pacers worked for years to disprove this theory. After the Malice at the Palace fomented the downfall of a legitimate contender in 2004, the franchise proceeded to endure eight straight seasons in the middle, never winning fewer than 32 games or more than 44. During that time, not once did they win multiple playoff rounds, and not once did they make a draft pick higher than 10th

It was really, really hard for Indy to break out of that funk. The aforementioned No. 10 draft pick was Paul George in 2010; they traded the No. 15 a year later for George Hill. Add those pieces to a foundation of Danny Granger (remember him?) and Roy Hibbert, then throw in a timely free-agent signing in David West, and you’ve got yourself a finally-better-than-mediocre basketball team.

After nearly a decade, the Pacers had finally built something they could be proud of.

At least it appeared that way. But what happened last night makes you rethink things a little bit.

To the Pacers’ credit, they pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in these Eastern Conference finals, which is something virtually no one expected any team to do this spring. The mighty Heat, winners of 27 consecutive games just a couple months ago, were pushed to the brink of elimination, and that’s something George and Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers can tell their grandchildren someday.

But how depressing is it to think that a seven-game exit was probably the Pacers’ ceiling? That no matter how “interesting” things began to look at certain points over these last two weeks, the chances of Indy actually winning this series in the end were precisely 0.00000 percent all along? That no matter how shrewdly constructed this Pacer team was, no matter how well coached they were, no matter how hard they fought to unseat the Heat as East champs, there was simply no out-talenting the unbelievable talent that is LeBron James?

That’s pretty damn depressing if you ask me. The Pacers worked for years and years to build themselves into something other than a first-round exit team. But ultimately, what’s the difference between a first-round exit and a third-round exit? In a league where rings are everything, a conference finals berth is nothing.

This is where we’re at. This is what LeBron’s relentless LeBronniness has done to the NBA. It’s left the other 29 teams in the league, some of them very good teams relative to the other squads comprised by mere mortals, wondering… what’s the point?

I suppose there’s some pride to be had in playing seven competitive, highly watchable games against the best team in the universe. The Pacers were one fluky 3-point shooting performance away from stealing Miami’s perch atop the East, and that’s saying something. Only it’s kinda not. Watching this series, you had this tingling sense that a Heat victory was a foregone conclusion, even when the Pacers tied it 1-1, then 2-2, then 3-3. LeBron was never really going to lose this one.

Basketball purists trumpeted this series as a potentially legendary one, a picture-perfect matchup of hoops yin and yang. You had the stylistic clash of an athletic, running, gunning supersquad and an old-school defensive team led by an old-school defensive big man. It was a beautiful sentiment. Beautiful, but baloney. This wasn’t a Taoist equilibrium — this was a food chain. The Heat were built to devour the Pacers, and devour them they did.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the Pacers. They’re a likable group of guys, an unassuming team from an unassuming town, they worked hard to reach this point, and they never had a chance.

The irony is that largely, this team was built by Larry Bird, the quintessential competitor, the guy who famously walked into the building for a 3-point shootout and asked the rest of the field, “Which one of you’s coming in second place?”

In the Eastern Conference, it’s the Pacers coming in second. Not only now, but it wouldn’t surprise a soul if they wound up right back here again next year, and the year after, and the year after that.

Indiana spent nine years building a team that was better than mediocre. But in the end, all they reached was a different kind of purgatory.

Thanks, LeBron. Thanks, Miami. As long as you’re around, everyone is mediocre.

Six Games of Misdirection

Gareth Morgan | Flickr

Welcome to another back and forth conversation. In this edition, Steve and Amin try to make sense of a Game 7 blowout win by Miami, the mystique surrounding Game 7s, team synergy, the strategies in the Finals, video games, and children’s television.

Amin: So last night, the Heat demolished the Pacers. There was no terrifying LeBron performance we all assumed was coming, nor was there any sort of “shrinking in the moment” by Indiana. It was a good, ol’ fashioned team-on-team butt-whooping. Miami played better defensively and offensively as an entire team, and they defeated Indiana… and it wasn’t close.

After six games see-saw games where we saw two ridiculously evenly-matched teams, I can’t help but be a little bit letdown. Why was this game a blowout? It reminds me of the seven-game series between the Lakers and the Rockets (the McGrady and Yao-less Rockets, if you remember) in the 2009 Western Conference Semifinals where the two teams went back and forth against each other until LA wiped the floor with Houston in Game 7.

In these two series, I’m assuming there’s some combination of the better team playing poorly and the worse team playing their best ball all series… but if there’s really an ability to destroy a team as LA did then and Miami did last night (and that doesn’t necessarily come down to the transcendent performance of one person), why isn’t that prevalent throughout the series? Why were we lead to believe that Indiana was as good as Miami for 6 games when they clearly were not? Was Miami saving something? Is there a “second gear” that some guys have and some guys don’t?

Bill Simmons would always talk about how KG only has one “gear,” and it’s always intense and can’t be turned off. So is this last series merely a matter of Indiana playing at that highest gear for the whole series, then Miami turning it up a notch? It’s not as though Indiana was some intricate puzzle for Miami to figure out: Hey, trap Hibbert outside the paint, blitz the ball handler, get George and Hill in foul trouble. Everyone knew Indiana’s depth couldn’t save them… so why did it take 7 games for Miami to figure it out?

Steve: To begin specifically with this Miami-Indiana series and last night’s game, I definitely felt there was an element of Indiana’s best players playing their best and playing a lot and Miami kind of forgetting how not to be the LeBron James show. Numbers bear this out: the Pacers’ starting lineup played 414 minutes in the playoffs—45% of the available minutes. Their next most-used lineup only played 35 minutes, or not quite 4% of the team’s playoff minutes. By way of contrast, the Heat have played their starters 30% of their total playoff minutes, and their next most-used lineup played 11%. Playing your starters 150% more than the other team and going to the bench half as much feeds into the notion that the Pacers were always playing in that highest gear, whereas Miami were shifting around a little more. Yet they still won convincingly in that seventh game.

Personally, what I think this speaks to more than anything else is the volatility of success in the NBA. Let’s contrast this with most people’s experience of going to work: for most people, on a good day you do a good job and on a bad day you do a bad job, but your individual contribution overall to your workplace is unlikely to be either particularly notable or disastrous. That’s not the way it is in the NBA and especially not in the playoffs. You’re probably saying, “Well, duh” to this because the idea of everyone having to be on the same page to succeed is a ripe old chestnut in sports, but there are also some twists here.

We saw that LeBron James in places stepped up—so to speak—but there was a lot of debate about whether this was the cause of or a symptom of Bosh and Wade (and Battier and Allen, more generally) being ineffective. In your regular, everyday life, there probably aren’t a lot of circumstances where you doing a really excellent job can be blamed for someone else doing a bad job, but that’s the NBA.

The closest thing I know of in my personal experience is regular gigging with a band or touring. For lack of an un-business-speak word, so much relies on the synergy of everyone’s collective energies in that situation. When you’re clicking it can be great. And when one person is dogging it, it can make you say, “Fine: If you’re going to mail it in, I’m going to work even harder to make this show great.” And then you can have a great show, but the overall thing flags because the collective energy isn’t there.

Also, to get kind of statistics-y on you, Amin, because I know you love it, I think things that are relatively inconsequential in our everyday lives—how much sleep you got, travel, how the weather affects you, what you ate for breakfast—can be amplified geometrically in players’ lives in the playoffs, creating a much greater variance in their performances and, as a result, an even greater variance in the consequences of that variance. In the playoffs, there are just too few games for these little bumps in players’ individual play to even out the way it can in the regular season.

But am I just letting the Heat off the hook talking about emotions and what they had for breakfast? The playoffs are supposed to reveal the heart of a champion, right? Is that what we got in Game 7? It sure didn’t feel like it. And the Spurs play very differently than the Pacers: their starting lineup has only played 19% of the team’s playoff minutes so far. Do the Eastern Conference Finals tell us anything about what we’ll see in the Finals?

Amin: I think there is a lot to what you said about both the lineup data and the collective synergy. Indiana’s “best” lineup is its starting lineup. Playing that lineup too much can result in fatigue by the last game of the series, and it can cause the rest of the rotation players to be a rusty and lack a bit of cohesion when placed in the lineup. Plus, you get yourself in a tricky situation as a team when you rely on your 5 best guys all the time–and there’s a substantial talent drop-off to your next unit–and your best guys get in foul trouble. If that happens–which it did last night–you’re kinda screwed.

As for the collective synergy, we’ve seen biochemical data analysis that supports the theory that players feel each others’ presence. With that kind of mutual support, coupled with the energy of a home crowd, coupled with the added mental push that other lesser-performing players might have forced upon themselves, and you’ve got a lot of chemistry forming on that court. Miami had science on its side. And maybe they had a balanced breakfast, too.

And while we may think that Game 7s are supposed to “reveal the heart of a champion,” history doesn’t necessarily support that. Here’s every Game 7 since 1947 (113 total). The mean win differential is just above 10 points; the median is an 8-point win. That’s a 3-5 basket difference (or 10, if it’s all free throws). That’s a lot of possessions to chalk up to a one team out-willing the other, and not just one team being substantially better than the other. Miami’s 23-point win last night was the 9th biggest differential of all time. While there are many other games with smaller differentials, 10 points is still 10 points. That’s bordering on blowout; it’s definitely “not close.” Without scrolling through thousands of lines of play-by-play data, I’m going to assume a few of those games were closer and got a little more inflated through end-game free throws. But still, they were out of reach.

Game 7 (h/t Basketball Reference)

So is it always the case that the better team is exhausting the lesser team by Game 7 so they can blow them out? If so, then as you say, San Antonio’s minutes allocation is much more balanced, giving them many looks they can throw at Miami. Then again, do we judge Miami’s performance in the next series by their general performance in the first 6 games, or do we use Wade’s and Allen’s much-improved contributions from last night as the jump-off point for the next series? Should we think “less” of Miami’s inability to play a full series of how they played last night, or should we think “more” of them for being able to rise to the occasion? I don’t really know either way. Offensively, Wade and Allen definitely helped last night. But the things that drove the win home, at least to me, were the blitzing/trapping of the pick-and-roll ball-handler, the trapping of Hibbert outside the paint, and the foul trouble of the primary defenders against Wade and LeBron.

If Miami can keep Tony Parker from initiating the offense by trapping him, the Heat should win, right? If they get Leonard, Ginobili, and Green in foul trouble, the Heat should win, right? If Duncan has to shoot 20-footers and Splitter can’t get into the paint, Miami should win, right? What’s to stop Miami from playing defense like that?

Steve: I think that both Miami and San Antonio will show greater flexibility than the Pacers ever could. To paraphrase Dennis Green, they are what we thought they were, and we’re not going to be crowning their asses, possibly because of it. If the Eastern Conference Finals had been two dudes playing Street Fighter II on the couch, the Heat would have been the guy picking Ryu, then Guile, then E. Honda, then Dhalsim—sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always tinkering and trying to find an edge. The Pacers were the guy who was just like Chun Li, Chun Li, Chun Li, Chun Li. They would fire up that Hyakuretsu Kyaku and that was pretty much it. I mean, consider how when Hibbert went out last night with five fouls in the third everyone on Twitter was just like, “Game.” There was no question of them going small or if Mahinmi could hold the line. It was over.

I expect the San Antonio-Miami series to be more chess-like, especially since I don’t think we should be prepared for the rest of the Heat players to play like they did last night for every game. Eventually inconsistency becomes its own kind of consistency, so I’m prepared for Miami to blow at least a couple of these games. I still think the Heat win the series, but I could still see it going seven games and ending like the ECF did, simply because the thing that could keep the Heat from being better is the one thing they can’t seem to control: themselves.

I don’t think it’s a question of everybody “wanting” it more or at the same time or anything as nebulous as all that. I remember seeing something after their Game 6 loss that said this team hadn’t been battle-hardened by coming up together or something else that seemed equally kind of misty and blockbuster movie-ish. I understand that the Spurs hold a distinct advantage in the been-there, done-that category as far as their core goes, but I think there’s a danger in saying if they lose it’s evident they’re flawed and if they win it’s evident they’re not. Was Boston in 2008 built so differently? But they won. Were the Lakers in 2004 or this year built so differently? But they lost. If we’re going to talk about the process here, if we’re going to be process-oriented, then we can’t only take things like winning or losing the championship as the barometer of success.

Amin: I think, for this finals, I agree. It’s not going to be about “wanting it more.” It’s going to be about execution of the plan and anticipating your opponent’s move before they do it. Versatility is key in this regard, and both of these teams know how to roll with the punches (or Hundred-Hand Slaps, or Hadoukens, or Shoryukens, or Tiger Uppercuts).

That’s one of the things that I really like about Spoelstra’s coaching technique–mostly because I contrast it with other coaches who don’t do it as well (Mike Brown in Cleveland specifically comes to mind). To some extent, roster depth is kind of like interchangeable parts in a machine. To another extent, different pieces of the roster turn you into different things.

For example, the standard 5 Zords in the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers were the Mastodon, Pterodactyl, Triceratops, Sabertooth Tiger, and Tyrannosaurus. When they combined, they created the original MegaZord. However, with the introduction of the Green Ranger, the DragonZord added more depth to the “Zord roster,” as it were. When the DragonZord replaced the Tyrannosaurus Zord in the formation of the MegaZord, it didn’t function the same way as the original MegaZord. It looked and acted differently. It had different abilities, different powers, different weaknesses, and different strengths. The Rangers knew when they needed to use it, and when they didn’t. In this same way, Spoelstra is able to understand that the Heat roster works in different permutations for different situations. Sure, their 5-man starting lineup is effective, but there’s no reason you can’t play LeBron at the 1 or 5 if need be.

Popovich is also capable of using his roster in different ways, but San Antonio–for better or worse–operates as a very well-oiled machine. There are different looks that they can throw at another team, but side pick-and-rolls, floor-spacing, crisp-passing, and trust that a guy’s going to be in the place where the playbook said he’d be are always going to be there.

I guess what I’m trying to ask here is this: is Gregg Popovich actually Lord Zedd? Or is he M. Bison? And how high have we set the difficulty?

Steve: Amin, I can’t believe you took a perfectly lucid and reasonable metaphor about Street Fighter II and basketball and warped it into one about the Power Rangers. Are you even speaking English? (And a side note about difficulty: I’m an old man. I stopped trying to prove anything to anyone a long time ago, so I generally always play games at the lowest difficulty level possible unless it’s just not enjoyable. I don’t want to die. I want to live! And enjoy life!)

I can see the early going of this series being a lot like the Jerry Seinfeld bit where he talks about an old married couple being like two magicians trying to impress each other. Obviously, Popovich is the real old hand here, but as you said, Spoelstra has shown that understanding of how to make a team flexible, so I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot of adjustments, with each team finding things that work for a couple of possessions before the other team slides and adjusts to it.

So in some ways, I think the canniness that the Spurs showed in beating the Grizzlies will in some ways be canceled out by the canniness of the Heat’s play designs, provided that Bosh and Wade don’t completely disappear again (which is a big proviso). In the end, then, I suspect it may come down in some ways to sheer talent, and it’s hard to bet against LeBron in that situation. I guess what that means is that I think if the Spurs are in a position to finish it in 6, they may pull it out, but that if it goes 7, the Heat will take it. Sadly, it might be one of your much-maligned blowouts if so, with the Heat going all Voltron laser sword on the Robeast that is San Antonio.

Power Rangers. Grow up, Amin.

Why The Heat Waited To Attack Roy Hibbert

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

When it falls down, who you gonna call now?

lucidtech | Flickr

Noam and Amin try to break down what’s going on with Miami, where Indiana’s future is taking them, and how teams can be successful over the long haul.

Noam: This Heat-Pacers series has been something of a basketball treat. All games have been competitive, excepting those in which Udonis Haslem goes 8 of 9 from the field (which, incredibly, amounts to more than one game). Paul George and Roy Hibbert have made themselves household names. Chris Andersen LITCHERALLY hasn’t missed a shot. And that LeBron guy is pretty good. Having seen these two squads matched up two years in a row, I would gladly sign up for another four or five.

You posit an interesting question on Twitter, though: could the Pacers possibly be considered as favorites in any future permutations of this series? Of Miami’s core, only LeBron, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are on the right side of 30. More importantly, Dwyane Wade, supposedly among the younger-oldies at 31, has seen fluctuations between his prime self and a sadder, broken down version happen frequently and violently. On the other side, Indiana’s starting wings are 22 and 23, with latter doubling as a third-team All-NBA premier wing defender. Roy Hibbert is 26, George Hill is 27.

But Indiana, for all its up-and-coming appeal, does have a major age concern. That would be David West, 33 by the time 2013-14 will tip off. He had ACL surgery two years ago, and while he seems to have recovered admirably, he plays a very physical game. Indiana’s strength is in their five man unit, but if one declines sharply, are we sure that balance isn’t irrevocably disrupted? Could growth on the wings, as well as the incremental improvements Hill and Hibbert project to make as they hit their prime, be enough to offset West’s age?

Amin: First of all, I don’t want your Chris Traeger reference to go unacknowledged. Well done, sir.

Second of all, yes my question is interesting. That’s sort of what I was alluding to. Indiana’s core–aside from West–is on the upswing. I could see West decline (as you said, he’s 33, he had ACL surgery, and he plays a tough, low-post game), but he looks like he’s declining gradually. I think that’s kind of the most ideal situation for any player in any sport, but especially for a guy who plays how he does. West will be slightly less effective next year, but he won’t have a stark drop off. Hibbert should improve, right? Will he make up for any potential deficiencies in West? Will Indiana let Hansbrough walk and pick up a backup PF who has a little more offense up his sleeve? Maybe Indiana can pounce on Thomas Robinson’s availability and play him heavy minutes behind West? Wowee.

Then, you’ve got the potential re-addition of Granger. Assuming Granger can play at even 75% of his former self… that’s pretty good. Granger is an effective scorer and a great defender. He gave LeBron fits during their intra-division CLE-IND series a few years ago. Granger also doesn’t seem like the type of player who would be difficult to fit back into a Pacers-style offense or defense. And based on the Pacers’ slower offense and their need for a wing upgrade over Gerald Green, slotting Paul George at the 2 (with Lance Stephenson behind) and Granger at the 3 seems like it would make the Pacers really good without causing extra stress/undue injury to Granger and his recover. And when I say “good” I mean “really really good.”Back to Miami real quick: Even with a very effective post game, LeBron + a bunch of other guys is probably not a championship team, right? That’s what existed in Cleveland, and it was proven time and again that LeBron needed a bit more reliability from the rest of the roster. That reliability came in Miami in the form of 1 guy who can get to the free throw line at will to close any gap (Wade) and another guy who is essentially guaranteed to make any shot if he’s wide open (Bosh). Those two players were not available in Cleveland. I am saying this as an unabashed Cleveland homer and someone who is rooting for a team with TYLER HANSBROUGH to beat the Heat.

Sorry about the Cleveland-aside. FOCUS. Ahem, OK. So, what I’ve noticed during this series is that the Pacers have been VERY good at preventing LeBron and Wade from living at the free throw line. As Derek alluded to in his piece, they’ve also effectively neutralized Chris Bosh’s impact by drawing him away from the basket on nearly every possession and contesting every shot he puts up. Miami has been relying on LeBron (as it should) and a 20-point performance by random role player X on any given night. Last night, it was Udonis Haslem. Haslem played really well, and the Heat needed every bucket he made–if not for their points then for their momentum.

When you look at the Heat’s roster, LeBron and Bosh are still in their primes, Cole and Chalmers are still young, and pretty much everyone else is a dinosaur in NBA years. Also, Chris Bosh is still possibly a dinosaur, but for other reasons (JOKES!). Going into next season–and more important the next postseason–if you have this same roster, you have LeBron still in his prime, a Bosh that people can figure out, an OK Chalmers/Cole backcourt (OK in Miami, average or less elsewhere), a Wade whose bad nights are starting to outnumber is good nights, a Ray Allen/Shane Battier combo that not doing its only required task of making open 3s, a revolving door of bigs, and Udonis Haslem. That’s… not gonna cut it.

Sorry, guess that wasn’t quick. But as it stands now, Indiana’s got options and are generally moving uphill. The Heat are still going to be good, but with their cap situation, they’re really only going to be able to make changes around the edges… and right now, their potential long term problems are with their core.

What do you think the next step for both teams will be to make sure we’ve got a rematch of them in the ECF next year?

Noam: It’s hard to throw out a foolproof ECF plan just because so many things can go wrong – injuries, luxury tax, injuries, random bounces, injuries, Nate Robinson catching fire, injuries. My gut says Miami is pretty much fine staying the course, as Erik Spoelstra would say, using the mini-MLE to get another 3-and-D guy (but maybe a less decrepit one this time, eh?) and gambling on a few minimum deal bigs. Indiana might be more interesting – I think convincing cases can be made for both keeping and trading Danny Granger, West is a free agent and could potentially come out of this summer either overpaid or in another jersey, the Pacer bench is epically horrendous. Also, after they refused to give up the 23rd pick in the draft for J.J. Redick, I demand that they either sign J.J. Redick or find a way to draft an immediate contributor with that pick. DEMAND IT, I SAY. HEAR ME, DONNIE?! However, I will immediately turn on my designation of Indiana being more interesting than Miami and ask you this question: is Miami’s run for a repeat title a historic abberation? This whole Wade business creates a unique vibe around the Heat – the way they came together and the mere existence of a 28 year old LeBron James makes them seem dynastic, and yet, as covered earlier, they might just be headed for a decline. We’ve seen teams win the title in a manner that seemingly dooms the following decade (Jordan Bulls, Duncan Spurs, any Laker title team ever), and we’ve seen teams win titles while giving the impression that they’re about to fall off from that level (the 2011 Mavs are a prime example of that), but do you remember any other team ever looking like it may just be both?

Amin: There are three important variables in this evaluation: 1) The CBA and salary cap, 2) Are any of the things that LeBron/Wade/Bosh do things that other players can do? and 3) What is Miami’s draft outlook looking like?

If you want this 3-man core to be dynastic, then the ret of the roster needs to be filled out in the same way as San Antonio’s. You gotta draft, develop, and trade your way into good parts that fulfill some of the tasks (or cover the deficiencies of) your core guys. And you gotta have the money to do it. If you do, you start to play your core guys fewer minutes as they get older, but the system is locked down. Alternatively, you can do what Dallas does and break the bank, stack, and reload the roster later around 1 or 2 pieces.

Right now, the Heat have a lot of good players, one great player, and two guys in between that are injured so are playing as good-level. Now, San Antonio has definitely recovered from a situation like that, but they’ve also consistently had draft picks and a well-managed cap. There’s a good chance Miami can pick up the same great play next year–like 99% certainty if Wade is healthy–but the nature of the Heat’s management of those 3 Spursian variables points to them not being able to turn this team into a 3+ championship dynasty like they hubristically promised.

In today’s CBA, is 3 rings the best anyone can do? Will the Spurs be terrible after their core retires/leaves? Can any team maintain contender or semi-contender status for 10+ years anymore? 5+ years, even?

Noam: The Thunder will be the ultimate test case for that, won’t they? They’ve hit all the theoretical checkpoints by drafting a transcendent star in Durant, finding another all-star to flank him in Russ, and being good enough early enough so his prime isn’t wasted. It’s what the Cavs couldn’t do with LeBron – they got to the Finals in his fourth year, one year ahead of the pace Durant set for OKC, but they did it with a supporting cast that was mostly veterans and role players. As LeBron continued to grow, they wilted instead. I think that’s the point that makes San Antonio so unique – David Robinson sitting out in 96-97 gave them their two cornerstones as a starting point, and they capitalized even further on that by inexplicably picking up two more in Tony and Manu. Without discrediting their developmental system, there are only so many such players percolating through depth charts, and grabbing several of them closely enough to have them all hit their primes together (or, in two different batches) requires immense amounts of luck.

Could it happen again? Sure, in theory. It’s hard to say if there are any other candidates for such a run, though. The Pacers are trying, but Paul George isn’t LeBron or Durant, and Hibbert is more Ibaka than Westbrook. Since this has somehow become a heavily anti-Cleveland exchange, we should point out that Kyrie might be that kind of transformative talent, and is being smartly surrounded by players his age, though none of the Waiters/Thompson/Zeller(/Nerlens Noel?) seems to be of the Westbrook caliber. There are some other tandems that one might throw out there – Chris Paul/Blake, Rose/Noah, Rubio/Love, Harden/Morey Acquisition X, Andrew Wiggins/Whoever Is On The Roster That Drafts Andrew Wiggins – but all are stretches, whether because they are dependent on unknown qualities, or because the known qualities have so far been lacking.

Is that CBA-designed or just plain happenstance? I would call it the latter, but it’ll be hard to tell without the benefit of hindsight. After all, this Spurs stretch is an outlier not just for the 2010s, but throughout NBA history. Outside of Red Auerbach being decades ahead of the curve, the Lakers continuously getting hall of fame centers, and the greatest player of all time existing, these things tend not to happen more often than they do. Again, the viability of the model could hinge on where OKC lands, with the Harden trade as the potential turning point. It’s an interesting wrench in that it simultaneously rid them of a third all-star, but brought in some assets that, if maximized, could theoretically bring in some of those young assets to develop in the Spursian manner you mentioned. If their run is cut shorter than we envisioned when this team came together, the Harden trade could become the turning point in NBA dynasty building.

Which brings us back to the Heat. They seem to be staring down some financial issues of their own – they’re scheduled to be repeater tax payers the moment such designations become available. If Wade’s knees don’t ruin everything, could his contract? Could Bosh’s? Are they due for a Harden trade of their own? Or, conversely, LeBron walking next summer before his supporting cast is torn apart? God, these would be great questions to discuss retroactively during all the free time we’ll have in the 2017 lockout.

Amin: Game 6 seemed to exacerbate all the same questions we had after Game 5. It’s going to be tough to figure out what Miami needs to do, but they need to do something. Be it a Harden-type trade, a use of the amnesty provision, any other type of trade that creates some complementarity and reliability… something. I don’t think they anticipated their core becoming unstable like this so quickly. And I don’t think any of us did either.

LeBron James and the False Narrative of Deja Vu

Jack and I tackle the sudden, mistaken narrative of LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s reversion, as well as the Heat’s newfound uncertainty. 

Jack: The already tired trope of today is LeBron reverted back to his days in Cleveland last night, dominating the ball with jumper after jumper as Wade and Bosh played glorified parts of Delonte West and JJ Hickson.  And it’s true to an extent, that a gimpy Wade and out-muscled Bosh have forced James into more of a scorer this series than he’s ever been and likely wanted to be since joining the Heat.  But that general narrative is missing a crucial aspect that’s easy to overlook unless you’re taking LeBron’s game 5 performance in deeper context with respect to his time as a Cavalier: those jumpers are still jumpers, but they’re good ones, the kind he didn’t have the patience to probe for as a younger player in Cleveland.

LeBron jumpers gleaned from a HORNS set or even a simple pick-and-roll with Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole are far departures from his former dribble-dribble-shoot-a-fadeaway mindset, and he deserves credit for it.  This new, heretofore unseen maturity is just another step in James’ constantly-evolving game, and an important reminder of just how much he’s grown mentally over the last several years.  But whether more James jump-shooting is by Miami’s design or mere coincidence due to specific circumstance, we can surely all agree it’s still not the best way for LeBron to play and the Heat to win.  They’ll need more from his all-too-supporting cast to win game 6 in Indiana, let alone take down Popovich, Duncan, Parker and company in the Finals.
Jordan: It’s as if we’re sacrificing reality for a sexier story. The 2010 Cavaliers were great because LeBron was great. And while LeBron’s even further evolved greatness is principal to Miami’s greatness, it is not the only reason. Miami is a terrific team because of Spoelstra’s ingenious stratagems, role players such as Shane Battier and somehow-underrated stars like Chris Bosh. Cleveland succeeded despite Mike Brown’s uninventive offense and the scientific phenomenon that was Antawn Jamison aging 50 years in the span of a few weeks.

One other thing that Cleveland team lacked that this Miami team does not is an aura of inevitability, if not invincibility. Cleveland was arguably the best team in the league and was the prohibitive favorite to win the championship, but it was never a certainty. The Lakers loomed large in the West, while the sneaky Celtics should never have been counted out. Not so with Miami. Usually reserved for the likes of the Spurs and the Lakers, the aura manifested itself, emanating from South Beach during the Heat’s win streak. The streak featured comebacks aplenty, yet none of those comebacks were surprising. It was just assumed, an accepted fact of reality, that the Heat would come back and continue making mincemeat of the rest of the league.
Lately, however, Indiana, and the monstrous shadow of Roy Hibbert have dimmed that once-blinding light. Even though the Heat won last night, it wasn’t an expected victory. No matter how large the lead, it never felt as if the game was out of reach and victory secured. Uncertainty, perviously exhumed from the lexicon of the Heat, returned for the first time since perhaps the 2011 finals. Is it because of Hibbert? Vogel? Paul George? Or is the resurrection of doubt a product of Miami itself?
Jack: That’s the only remaining question of these playoffs that will have lasting effects on the league’s landscape.  The Spurs are brilliant, but the stars aligned for them to win the West this season; they’ll be a major threat for as long as Duncan staves off retirement, of course, but hardly prohibitive favorites to win a championship like Miami or Oklahoma City.  Whether or not Indiana – playing without Danny Granger and facing a couple pertinent financial and personnel decisions this offseason – belongs beside the Heat and Thunder is a matter of not only what you make of Hibbert, George and the rest, but also Wade, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and advantages gleaned from Miami’s style.

Today, watching him frequently lose a suddenly slow dribble and James drive the Heat with him entrenched in the backseat, it’s easy to forget Wade’s brilliance from just a couple months ago.  His raw per game averages from March of 24, 6, 6 and almost 3 combined steals/blocks are vintage Wade, and he was doing all that while shooting more efficiently (53.2% FGs) than ever, too.  It’s crucial to remember that he’s fighting not just general wear, but injuries to both knees, too.  A player so reliant on 45-degree cuts and misdirection for success on both ends will of course struggle to adjust with ailing knees.  Whether or not Wade will ever recover the way Miami needs him to is anyone’s guess at this point, though, and if he doesn’t they’ll need even more from the aging, laboring Allen and Battier.  When a shooter’s legs go, what else does he have? And when a versatile defender is finally too banged up to be stretched to his limit, what does he offer? Those are concerns facing the Heat today, obviously, but also ones just as pertinent to their prospects going forward.
All that said, the most vexing development this series has presented for the present and future is the dominance of Hibbert.  Not only did some malign the Pacers for matching the maximum offer sheet he signed with Portland last summer, but their laughs were validated early this season, too, when he was a complete liability on offense.  Before January 1, he was a 7-footer that shot 39.5% from the field! And even after that absolutely dreadful stretch, there wasn’t a full month when Hibbert hit more than 48% of his shots.  But against downsized Miami, he looks like a perennial MVP candidate.  So who, exactly, is Roy Hibbert? He’s not Joel Anthony but he’s not vintage Dwight Howard, either; the truth is he’s somewhere in between, an All-Star most years whose awesome defensive presence is bigger than his offensive one.  And that’s okay! Indy advanced past Atlanta and New York with Hibbert scoring something like his normal self earlier this postseason.  If he’s only this all-encompassing throwback to the days of alpha-male centers against the Heat, he’s still a good enough player to justify his second or third position in the Pacers hierarchy.  And considering George – despite undue proclamations that he’s a top-10 player overall – has still just scratched the surface of his offensive development, that’s a great sign for Indiana going forward.
Is it one that will propel them to an improbable series win down 3-2 to the defending champions? Probably not, but that creeping Miami doubt you touched on gives them more of a chance than any of us anticipated.  Whether or not it’s due to the Heat’s deficiencies or not is a discussion for seasons coming.
Jordan: You’re right. As much of a revelation as Hibbert has been this series, and really in the playoffs, we still don’t fully know who he is. Will he maintain this form, or even improve upon it, next season? Or will he regress, as he won’t be able to face such a small frontcourt for all 82 games? I’ll agree that he’s likely a perennial All-Star and contender for Defensive Player of the Year, but it will be interesting to see how teams game plan for him in greater detail.
And again, we come back to uncertainty. LeBron needs more from his supporting cast, but we’re not sure if he’ll get it, either in this series or, if they advance in the next. Chris Bosh is facing a less-than-ideal match up against Hibbert/West, and Duncan/Splitter likely won’t be much kinder. Roy Hibbert, darling of the playoffs, certainly deserves the heaps of adulation, but uncertainty rears its head when questions of identity and consistency arise.

What we do know is this: this Miami Heat team hasn’t somehow mystically transformed into the 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron’s masterful performance wasn’t a completely vintage affair, more, as you said, a blend of the old and the new. For one night, he had to do it by himself (and even that’s a mostly false narrative, if Udonis Haslem has anything to say about it), but that was more a demand of the game’s circumstances, not of his entire team.

Roy

Image: _Fidelio_:  Flickr

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?””

“Enough. You?”

“Not much, Roy. Not much.” Frank scratched his head.

“We’ll get the next one.”

“We will.”

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.