Photo: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Miami’s Rope-A-Dope Strategy is Destroying the Pacers

It is a common strategy among JV and Varsity High School basketball squads across the country to begin a game playing one style in the first quarter before completely shifting strategies to start the second. Many teams that run full-court presses will play the first six or eight minutes in regular man-to-man defense, or perhaps even go zone, knowing that their opponent has prepared all week to handle their press.

At a given moment, the squad will completely transform, causing its opponent to panic and forget everything they had worked on in the week leading up to the big game. This rope-a-dope strategy brilliantly lures the opponent into a false sense of security that is often impossible to recover from.

This strategy often works in high school with 16-year-old kids. It’s not supposed to work in the NBA.

When C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, and Rasual Butler checked in at the 2:55 mark of the first quarter, the Pacers’ led 19-5 and the narrative was all set to bemoan how the Indiana bench couldn’t hold the lead the starters had built up. But the change in the game actually started about three minutes earlier.

Just six minutes into Game 3, the Pacers had a 7-point lead, momentum, and a quiet Miami crowd to play with. Miami called a full time out to weather the body blows that Indiana was throwing down low. The Pacers “Mood Ring” was happily preening on his way to the bench.

I noted on Twitter that Miami had really backed off of the pressure early on. Out of the 5:40 time out, the Heat ratcheted back up the defensive intensity that they have used so many times to kill the Pacers. George Hill immediately dribbled lazily into a double-team and lost the ball, but the Heat didn’t quite see immediate dividends on the scoreboard.

Miami turned it over on 5 consecutive possessions, even while the Pacers floundered to score themselves. When George Hill was called for an offensive foul as he dribbled needlessly underneath the hoop and around the 3-point line twice, looking for something to do offensively, Watson subbed in with a 12-point lead.

The Pacers would only get two good looks at the basket the rest of the quarter (a Hibbert jumper off of good ball-movement and a missed Hibbert floater) with an offensive foul, a shot clock violation, and a really bad Lance-isolation play thrown in for good measure.

The buzz on Twitter and in the press box, as noted before, immediately turned to the Pacers’ poor bench. In less than 3 minutes, a 14-point lead had been sliced to 7, and Indiana fans watched with a bit of nervous trepidation. But the bench wasn’t the problem.

The Heat opened up the second quarter nearly as poorly, as Luis Scola and Lance Stephenson pick-and-rolled them to death. Scola even showed off some clever Argentine post moves against Chris Bosh who was saddled with early foul trouble.

With 6:14 left in the half, the starters from both teams returned and Indiana led by 15 on the scoreboard. It was at this point where Miami’s full rope-a-dope strategy manifested itself.

Here is how the Pacers finished the first half:

  • David West bad pass turnover
  • Paul George lost ball turnover
  • George Hill bad pass turnover
  • David West bad pass turnover (out of a timeout)
  • Lance Stephenson bad pass turnover
  • Lance Stephenson makes 1-of-2 free throws
  • Evan Turner lost ball turnover
  • David West makes 2-of-2 free throws
  • David West misses good look from 12-feet
  • Lance Stephenson makes strong driving layup
  • Failed weave attempt leading to a missed 30-foot Lance Stephenson heave at the buzzer

Needless to say, the Pacers didn’t exactly “close out” the first half.

We know how bad Indiana’s offense has been at times — especially over the last three months of the season — but the late first half melt-down had less to do with the Pacers’ offensive strategy and more to do with their inability to handle Miami’s defensive pressure. Over the last 30 minutes of game action, the Pacers were outscored by 27 points, much of that time with “The Five” (the Indiana starters) on the floor.

Paul George was saddled with foul trouble for much of the game and played a playoff-low 32 minutes. In the locker room post-game, he somberly sat in the corner, choosing not to answer any immediate questions as he had enough ice on his legs to freeze Frosty. After some time to reflect, he was pretty candid with the media in the press conference, saying that “he wasn’t tired because he was on the bench for most of the game.”

“It’s hard to make a couple of shots and then get sent to the bench, especially when ‑‑ I won’t get into it,” George said. “It’s tough.”

George’s frustration notwithstanding (and by my count, three of his first four fouls were iffy at best), it’s troubling that the Pacers’ leader would look at the officials instead of his own team. While his third foul did send him to the bench at the 3:34 mark of the second quarter, the Heat had already scored six consecutive points against Indiana’s starters.

More harmful than George’s foul trouble was West’s lackadaisical attitude when throwing entry passes out of successful Indiana pick-and-rolls. Hill and Watson couldn’t handle the Heat’s full court pressure, forcing one of Indiana’s wings to bring the ball down the court and belatedly get the Pacers into their offensive set at a weird spot.

After dominating the first quarter, the Pacers’ were simply unable to get the ball inside to Hibbert for the rest of the game. On the rare occasion he did touch the ball, he failed to take advantage, often getting blocked or missing very makable layups over smaller defenders.

Paul George did acknowledge that the Pacers “got comfortable” after building the big early lead and admitted that couldn’t happen again. Whether the Pacers got comfortable, took their foot off the gas, or were simply caught by surprise when Miami “turnt up” the pressure doesn’t really matter.

This isn’t high school basketball.

Frank Vogel shouldn’t need to remind his team in every time out that the Heat could potentially start playing better defense at any moment. The Pacers need to stay more level-headed and understand that against this team, no lead is safe — especially a lead in the first quarter.

If Indiana can’t defend itself against Miami’s “rope-a-dope,” the bell will ring quickly on its season.

Tags: Indiana Pacers Paul George

  • Syreeta McNeal

    Jon, agree with you completely. But this goes down to coaching. Spoelstra is a championship type of coach and Vogel is not. If Rick Carlisle was coaching the Pacers with this squad, he would have made the necessary adjustments to win Game 3. If you play big, you need to play big (low block post ups). For the life of me, I did not understand the offensive strategy to have West and Hibbert set High pick and roll screens when Bosh was in foul trouble and LBJ was guarding David West. This is coaching deficiency. Vogel played Stephenson too long to the point that he wore down in the 2nd half. Bird brought in Evan Turner to help with dribbling. If you are going to do pick and roll and pick and pop, why not have Evan Turner or Copeland in to help space the floor so that you can get great lanes to the basket? That is the reason why Vogel is not a championship coach. He is more like Mike Brown where he only makes one adjustment at the beginning, but has no clue how to make the necessary adjustment during the game to pull out the win on opposing guys court. Spoelstra coached his behind off.

    • Brandon Burton

      That is ridiculous, I sorry, but it is. Spoelstra has two of the best players ever on the same team at the same time; Vogel (as good as the Pacers are) does not. The Pacers are more than capable of beating the Heat, but, sometimes, there is just no stopping greatness. I could flip your argument about Vogel around and say that if Spoelstra coached any other team, he’d have trouble getting even one ring. He’s not a bad coach, but he is only about equal to Vogel, with the advantage that he has great players to work with, while Vogel only has really, really good players at his disposal. Lastly, Bird did bring in Turner for ballhandling, but he has (with the exception of 2 games) proven himself totally inept when he comes off the bench. As for Copeland, he might get you 10-15 a game, but he’ll give up double that if he gets any meaningful run. I’m essentially giving the Pacers a mulligan on this one.

      • Syreeta McNeal

        You don’t stop greatness, you try to contain greatness. Even with Wade and LBJ scoring great, the Pacers where in the game. The 3rd scorer, Ray Allen with open 3 in transition, because the Pacer’s pick and roll and pick & pop sets with Hibbert and West were ineffective. West needed to get his behind in the post to post up LBJ and Hibbert needed to get his behind in the post to post up Bosh (who was in foul trouble). All the guards had to do was spread out behind the 3 point line and do a pass to the low post man. Allow the post to get the ball and then make the cut if need be. What would have happen was the opportunity for the Pacers to slow down the pace and ensure that even if they missed a shot, they could get back in defense to not let Miami win in the transition game. If you look at Game 1, that is what they did when Miami made their run. Sports analysts were befuddled with how the low post game was not utilized by the Pacers which is about COACHING. Your job as a coach is to figure out the matchup that best suits your team and exploit it. Vogel needs to get his act together or he should be gone. The reason why I stated you needed Turner in the game is because he is a better ball handler to at least put the ball in the post when Miami has pressure. You have to have spacing and know what you are doing (like the Spurs do and Mavericks did to win) to beat the Heat.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Except Turner is a lousy floor spacer and turnover prone to boot. You ignore that Miami was committing a ton of attention to clogging the paint and Indiana couldn’t knock down enough threes to make Miami respect the perimeter.

          Indiana didn’t abandon the post, they just got stopped. How many shots did Indiana miss inside of 5 feet? How many entry passes resulted in turnovers? How many time did the ball get stripped as a Pacer tried to maneuver to the basket?

          Miami was playing too good of defense to just space the floor and get the ball in the deep post without running something more complex to create space. Miami’s trapping style on the pick and roll results in a 4 on 3 situation if you can beat the trap and get the ball to the big man. Hibbert and West repeatedly got the ball inside of their primary defender by Miami was swarming effectively.

          Does Vogel need to try some small ball with some of the bench units? Probably. But if West takes better care of the ball and makes good decisions, we may be talking about how Indiana is up 2 games to one in the series because Vogel didn’t panic and stuck with his bigs.

          That being said, there are four coaches in the league I would take ahead of Vogel: Pop, Rivers, Carlisle, and Spoelstra. Coincidentally those are the only active coaches with championships. Is it really a bad thing to say that you have the fifth best coach in the NBA?

          • Syreeta McNeal

            When you make a statement with your players that you can beat the Heat, YOU BETTER BACK IT UP. Vogel put his reputation out there and he has to adjust accordingly to have what he and his team stated become reality. I would rather have Scolia come in and replace West because at least in the post, he would be able to do post moves against Lewis. Look, the Heat are formidable because they are the champs. However, you have to adjust. The good thing for the Pacers is that they have a chance to redeem themselves in Game 4. Remember, Pacers strength are their bigs and pounding the heat. They have to get back to getting the ball in the post and let Hibbert and West and Scolia dominate. It will allow the pace to be slower and minimize the transition that Heat can do to dominate and score 3′s because of the turnovers by the Pacers.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Wait… so Scola comes in BEFORE Miami turned up the defensive intensity, hits a couple of awkward shots against Bosh, and suddenly he’s a better post player than West?

            Again, getting out-coached by a really, really good coach doesn’t make you a bad coach. Pop, as good as he is, would probably get out coached by Phil Jackson. That doesn’t make him bad.