RE: Game 1, Pacers vs. Bulls

When reading this morning’s ESPN 5-on-5 (to which both Jared and I contributed), I was struck by what fellow THN blogger, Matt McHale of By the Horns had to say in response to the question whether Game 1 was a Bad Game or a Bad Sign for Chicago.

It wasn’t Chicago’s best game, but look at it this way: Darren Collison, Danny Granger and Tyler Hansbrough combined to shoot 12-for-22 from 16-23 feet (Hansbrough went 7-for-10). Plus, Collison and Granger were 6-for-10 from downtown.  Furthermore, Brandon Rush and A.J. Price combined to go 4-for-5 on 3s. Trust me: That kind of unusually hot outside shooting won’t continue.

Reading that made me rethink Saturday’s game, and review where a lot of the Pacers’ offensive success originated.  I did some digging using the great site (and fellow THN member) Hoopdata.com, and what I found made me question whether Indiana could repeat their successes from Game 1 if they played in the same way.

Reverting to Form

The Pacers played awfully well on Saturday – arguably as well as they have all year long.  They came so close – trailing for only 48 seconds the entire game – that the urge is to hope they do the same thing, but just finish the job.  That could be a big mistake, and I’ll tell you why.

It has been discussed ad infinitum, ad nauseum about the change in identity for the Pacers under Frank Vogel.  I brought it up repeatedly in our Playoff Preview.  There was a clear difference, and the graphic below showing shot distribution is just one more example of it.

The grey area represents the first 44 games under Jim O’Brien, while the transparent blue is the last 38 games under Frank Vogel.  You can see a clear migration up and to the right – towards shots inside 10 feet.  Under Vogel, these grew from 38% of total field goal attempts to just over 45%.

Now take a look at the shot distribution from Game 1:

Here, the blue remains the Vogel-led Pacers, while the yellow reflects the distribution on Saturday.  You can see the unmistakable slide down and to the left – towards shots outside of 15 feet.  The level of three-pointers doesn’t match O’Brien, but the shots inside 10 feet drop to 37% and the shots outside of 15 feet jump to 57%.

You can see this trend in the key players.   First, Danny Granger:

This chart, like the first one comparing the Vogel-coached Pacers to the O’Brien-coached Pacers shows the same clear, up and to the right movement.  It’s true the Granger would occasionally fall off the wagon, but he definitely moved his game closer to the basket under Vogel.  Now look at the comparison to Game 1:

Again, the slide down and to the left, with the yellow reflecting Saturday’s distribution.  This is the most dramatic, but it’s worth looking at some others.

Say it with me:  “Up and to the right.”  Tyler moved closer to the basket under Vogel. Now, Game 1:

Tyler’s distribution in Game 1 isn’t bad, per se.  It’s just kinda odd.  Of Buckaroo’s 18 shots, seven came at the rim, 10 came from outside 15 feet, and one in between.  Again, not an altogether horrible distribution, but it does underscore how it important Hansbrough’s mid-range game is – to both Tyler and the Pacers.

Also, consider some other issues that were highlighted in Jared’s Game 1 Recap – rebounding and free throws.

The “smash mouth” Pacers had climbed to 8th in ORB% (.286) and 3rd in FT/FGA (.272) for the time period between January 31st and the end of the season.  In Game 1, their ORB% was a solid .317 for the game, but it dropped to only .217 in the second half and was completely erased by the fact that they could only get 50% of the boards of their defensive glass.

The free throw story was even worse.  With Derrick Rose entering the paint almost at will, the Bulls posted a FT/FGA of .317, well above the .263 average posted by 16 NBA playoff teams this weekend.  Meanwhile, the Pacers could muster only .131, owing largely to their predilection for shooting a lot of jumpers.

In effect, for 44-1/2 minutes on Saturday, this team was successful in largely the same way it would have (sporadic) success under Jim O’Brien.  They played reasonable defense, cut down on turnovers, and hit lots and lots of jumpers.

Then, for the final 3-1/2 minutes, the Pacers lost the same way they lost under O’Brien.  They failed to get crucial stops or control the boards, they couldn’t get good looks or get to the line, and they missed jumpers.

This is one of the reasons that Saturday’s Game 1 doesn’t necessarily provide a blueprint for beating the Bulls.

Regression to the Mean

The other reason comes back to Matt McHale’s original point.  It is unlikely that the Pacers will have the kind of success hitting their three’s and long two’s over the course of the series. Here’s a comparison of the eFG% at each location under Vogel vs. the actual Game 1 results.

It’s easy to see the dramatic over-performance in threes and long two’s.  Combined, the Pacers had an eFG% of .583 from those two areas, compared to the .435 they averaged under Vogel.

In speaking to Alex Yovanovich about this, he did mention the Pacers did get good shots on Saturday.  This is true.  There were not a ton of high-degree-of-difficulty guarded jumpers.  However, that’s likely to change in Game 2, as Chicago looks to establish their bona fides as the best team in the league at field goal defense.  Also, the favorability to the average can’t be explained away by just saying “they were open shots.”  There was a bit of a hot hand at play there, as well.

And that’s not something to be relied upon.  Using Hoopdata’s XeFG% (expected eFG% based on average percentages at each shot location), the Pacers had an eFG% .524 on a shot selection that would normally garner them about a .480.  In this context, that’s about an 8-point difference due to better shooting.  That’s not a ton, but it’s the difference between just missing an upset and a comfortable Bulls win.

The Pacers only posted a .524 or better in about one out of every four games (12 of 44 under O’Brien, 10 of 38 under Vogel).  The Bulls, on the other hand, only allowed a .524 or better in 14 of 82 games this season.  Therefore, it seems unrealistic to expect this kind of shooting performance from the Pacers again this series, particularly given this shot distribution.

Fortunately, Indiana has plenty of areas that it can improve in order to be just as competitive with the Bulls – if not moreso.

Redoubling the Effort

Even if the Pacers’ shooting (and the Bulls’ shooting defense) returns to normal levels, Indiana can still challenge Chicago in this series.  In fact, those ways might actually be easier and more replicable than hoping to maintain a hot shooting hand.

With this Pacer team under Frank Vogel, there has always been a difference between who they are and who they want to be.   However, at various times, Vogel has done an impressive job of getting these players awfully close to what he – and I’d assume the front office and fans – wants them to be.  He’ll have to do that again, if this is going to be a series.

They – the coaches and the players – will have to renew their commitment to becoming – being – what Frank Vogel refers to as a “smash mouth, power post” basketball team.

This means that the next time Vogel tells them that they are a better rebounding team than the Bulls, they must go out and prove it.  It means they cannot allow the Bulls to grab 50% of the rebounds off their own glass.  It means that they will have to attack the rim offensively and get more than 17 free throw attempts in a game. (And, oh, yeah…hit more than 11.)  It means that Hibbert will have to find a way to be a factor – no more 7 FGA’s in 32 minute games.

The Pacers surprised a lot of people in Game 1, and they did it in a way that was probably unexpected even for those who were optimistic about their chances.  However, if they want to continue to be a factor, Indiana will have to become the embodiment of Frank Vogel’s words.

Otherwise, they’re sure to regret it.

Tags: 2011 NBA Playoffs Chicago Bulls Danny Granger Darren Collison Tyler Hansbrough

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