In the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown famously dueled in a battle of wits for the ages. It remains one of the most compelling series to study, and one of the most heart-breaking for Pacers fans to remember.
Most people remember two key components of the series: The unbelievable defense (or atrocious offense, whatever you want the narrative to be) and the brilliant chess match between the two coaches.
Rarely has a series so evenly matched featured so many blow-outs. After losing home-court advantage and falling down 2-1, Rick Carlisle turned to an unlikely hero, Austin Croshere, for game four. Croshere had only played 13 minutes per game during the 2004 season and hadn’t started a single game all year, but in game four, he exploded for 14 points including three 3-pt field goals as he stretched Detroit’s defense and left them scrambling in an easy 15-point victory. Unfortunately for the Pacers, the magic would not continue. Detroit made some key adjustments and ended up winning game five and the series en route to their first Post-Bad Boys championship.
It’s possible that Detroit was a slightly better team than Indiana that season, or maybe just that they were a tough matchup for those Pacers, but I always thought the answer went a little deeper than that. When Carlisle took out Jeff Foster in favor of Austin Croshere, the move saw instant results – but the complete overhaul in the team’s identity did not end up paying off in the long run. While Croshere did rebound from an awful game five with a decent performance in game six, Foster, an energy guy who had started 79 games while pacing Indiana to the number one overall seed that season, played only nine minutes in the final three games of the series.
In the playoffs, good teams have to make adjustments in order to win every series, but very rarely are wholesale identity changes met with favorable results. Even if a team does end up winning a series, they very rarely win the Finals after admitting earlier in the playoff run that who they were and what they were wasn’t quite good enough to beat another team.
This, more than anything else, is why Frank Vogel should not bench Roy Hibbert against the Hawks.
Fans and writers alike have been screaming for Hibbert’s removal from the lineup since early in Game 1. Bob Kravitz said Vogel should bench Hibbert or be fired. Our own Will Rettig agreed and argued that it was necessary in order to win the series.
Indeed, this series may not be a matchup that Roy Hibbert can dominate – but completely benching him would be a terrible mistake.
In the face of all the criticism, both Vogel and Hibbert responded rationally and insightfully in game four. Rather than overhaul the entire identity of a team that finished first in the East, Vogel decided to adjust both his defensive strategy and his substitution pattern.
Adjustment 1 – Vogel scaled back, but didn’t eliminate the Big Fella’s minutes.
After averaging 30 minutes per game throughout the regular season, Hibbert saw the floor for less than 25 minutes in game four. It’s likely he would have been around the 20-minute mark if not for some first-half foul trouble from Ian Mahimni, but Hibbert was not stationed firmly on the bench like many fans and writers had hoped. In those 24 minutes, Hibbert was mildly successful, but perhaps more importantly, he seemed engaged for the duration of the game. He finished with only 6 points and 3 rebounds, but he did shoot 60% and also defended six shots at the rim. He also had two blocks and even made a really nice, multi-faceted post move in the second quarter.
Adjustment 2 – Vogel played West and Scola together down the stretch.
After playing just 84 total minutes together in the regular season, Vogel has turned to West/Scola lineups for the majority of the fourth quarter in games three and four. The change has enabled the Pacers to spread the floor and “beat their opponents individually” as Jared Wade summed up here. But more than anything, it has been the play of Luis Scola in general that has vindicated the move. The Argentine has been a man possessed since game two, and the Pacers have greatly benefited from his uptick in playing time.
The above-the-break 3-pointers by David West and Paul George were both hugely vital moments in Saturday’s game, but George Hill’s layup with less than a minute left might have been more important. The spacing provided by the midrange games of West and Scola are directly responsible.
Adjustment 3 – Vogel maximized some interesting Evan Turner mismatches early on.
Perhaps this shot chart, more than even Jeff Teague’s ridiculous one-handed runner in game three has been the most surprising development of this series.
Without completely altering the offense, Vogel exploited a great Louis Williams on Evan Turner mismatch in the first half. Williams, who had given the Pacers fits in previous games with his shot-making abilities, was far less effective in game four with only six points on 27% shooting. Coach Budenholzer was much less willing to call Williams’ number in the second half as he only played seven minutes, and Turner’s destruction of him on the low block deserves most of the credit.
Adjustment 4 – Vogel saw success with the two PG (or, actually, make that the three PG) lineup.
Vogel turned to an even rarer lineup combination in game four than Scola/West. George Hill, CJ Watson, and Paul George had only played 48 total minutes together this season (in order to illustrate how tiny of a sample size that is, Lavoy Allen, Rasual Butler, and Donald Sloan have been on the court more this year). What resulted in the fourth quarter was a shot chart that was very “un-Pacer-y.”
The shot distribution was uncommon for two reasons: First of all, the Pacers actually shot better than 50% from the field, but secondly, almost 70% of their shots were either from 3-pt range or around the basket. The smaller, more athletic lineup further spaced the floor around Indiana’s floor-spacing bigs and created driving lanes for Paul George and George Hill to get to the rim.
The Pacers’ struggles have been well-documented and a three-point victory over a mediocre Hawks team may not have changed any of that. Still, Vogel sent a message to Indiana when he refused to yank Hibbert from the lineup – “This series is not our ultimate goal.”
The fact is, the Pacers are going to need Hibbert down the line if they have any hopes of winning a title. As damaging as a first round loss to the lowly Hawks would be after the season the Pacers had, let’s not mince words: a round one win followed by a second round loss would not be a successful season. The commitment this team has made to defense and “playing big” all season cannot be abandoned now that the playoffs are here. The Hawks, admittedly, are a tough matchup, both for Hibbert individually and the Pacers as a whole. But Vogel’s decision to adjust rather than completely change was vindicated in game four. More importantly, it is the only possible path Indiana can take if it hopes to achieve its lofty goal of reaching the Finals.