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.