For better of for worse (spoiler alert: it’s for worse), this team is overly dependent on its starters. They are one of the best five-man units in the NBA (and have been dating back to when Stephenson’s spot was filled by Danny Granger). Vogel either knows this and exploits it or has actively created it. Regardless, he constructs his rotation in a way to maximize the amount of time that his best five best players share the court.
During the regular season, only Minnesota’s starters averaged more time on the court together (21 minutes per game) than the 20 minutes per game the Pacers starters played together. Last year in the playoffs, that number was 23.0 minutes together per game for Indian’s starting five.
In Games 1 and 2 of this series, they played together for 28 and 30 minutes, respectively. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the starting lineup saw at least 24 minutes together in all but one game. In a Game 5 loss, Lance Stephenson missed most of the first quarter with foul trouble, so they only played 16 minutes as a unit.
Which brings us to the last two games, Games 3 and 4, in which the starters played just 15 and 13 minutes together, respectively.
This, more than the points tallied at the line, is what hurts the Pacers the most in a practical sense. Points are theoretically infinite and can be made up. The minutes in a game are finite. So it is imperative that the starters are able to be on the court together as much as possible. Because, roughly speaking, the Pacers play well with their starters on the court but normally do not when even one reserve is on the floor.
So, yes, the foul trouble in Game 4 really hurt the Pacers.
And Stephenson’s first two fouls were soft calls. The first was absolutely egregious, as he merely gave a slight bump to Dwyane Wade while the Heat guard was trying to use an off-ball pick. There was barely even incidental contact, and this is the NBA equivalent of “holding on every play” in the NFL. This happens on every possession and is rarely called.
The second foul, which came early in the second quarter, was a bit better but still soft, with Stephenson getting whistled for a loose ball foul for nudging an airborne Udonis Haslem while they were both going for a board. Udonis was affected by the contact and may well have gotten the board though, so I do get it even if it’s not really an “Eastern Conference Finals blood feud” foul.
As bad as they were, however, there is no debating that Lance responded stupidly.
On the same possession — exactly 11 seconds after picking up his second foul — Stephenson bit on a patented Wade shot fake, elevated for a block, and came down hitting Dwyane on the side. You can piss and moan about Wade jumping a bit sideways to draw the contact if you want, but it was an absolutely idiotic play by Lance. With two fouls, in a borderline-elimination game, you need to know that your ongoing presence on the court is more important than contesting an 18-foot jumper.
Players must have the discipline to not put themselves in a position to draw fouls. Moreover, they must understand of what is and isn’t important in terms of affecting the game.
Contesting that shot was a trivial moment, an inconsequential play. But Lance playing 8 minutes in the second quarter was critical. Instead, he chose to contest and ended up playing just 44 seconds in the period.
If Lance held himself accountable for his own actions, he would tell you that it was his fault he forced to sit with foul trouble, even though his first two fouls were, for lack of a better word, bullshit.
Had the third been something random like the first two where he was picked on for just playing basketball, then OK, blame the refs. But knowing how to play the game on the verge of foul trouble is a skill, and Lance did not display that skill here. Even had he jumped at the pump fake three minutes later, it might be easier to blame the refs a bit. But doing so 11 seconds after you pick up your second foul? That’s just idiotic.
Lance wasn’t the only guy in foul trouble, however.
Hibbert also got himself a seat on the bench for the final 2:50 of the half after picking up his third foul. He, too, has a good case to complain about ticky tack whistles.
Here was the first foul he committed.
Definitely a bit handsy, but not exactly Hacksaw Jim Duggan. It is the hand on the hip of driving guy, however, so I can see why it was called even if it is a bit soft.
The second one was worse.
It’s a nearly identical-looking play, though Mario Chalmers is thrown off balance more after Hibbert’s hand is put on his hip. Hard to say how much of this is floppy vs. a littler guy being actually driven off his path by a big man’s force. Not a Bill Laimbeer foul though.
Regardless, Hibbert knew he had two fouls after this, and he still decided to try his luck at verticality less than 90 seconds later.
Wade drove baseline and Hibbert jumped to challenge the layup. And he fouled him. It is tough to see on the video of the mid-air encounter, but Roy extends his arms at about a 45-degree angle and makes forearm-to-forearm contact as Wade is trying to shoot.
That’s not verticality (even if Roy gets the benefit of the doubt on these arm-extending tries sometimes), and the call forced Roy to the bench for the final 2:50 of the half.
That isn’t so long, though, and Indiana actually ran even, 7-7, with Miami for the rest of the quarter. So no real harm.
More hurtful was his fourth foul, which came 3:11 into the third quarter.
LeBron drove off a pick and roll and challenged Roy in the paint. James was fading away a bit on his own, but Hibbert clearly pushed off into LeBron’s back as he went up for the shot.
This is the fourth call, and the one that forced Roy to sit for more than six minutes.
Again, if you want to break this play down Zapruder style and debate what is and isn’t a foul for a half hour, knock yourself out. But as with Lance, this is more just an example of a Pacer player not understanding what is and is not important.
LeBron is trying to take a tough, short-mid-range shot. That is the type of shot Indiana wants LeBron (and Wade) to take. Meanwhile, Hibbert was twice whistled for fouls in the first half for putting his hands on the body of a driving Heat player. Those are two reasons that he should have let LeBron just try to throw up whatever floater nonsense he was going to try to bank in on this drive.
It’s just dumb.
As bad as he has often been since the beginning of February — and especially in these playoffs — Hibbert must keep himself on the court. After he left, Indiana’s rim protection fell apart, with superb Miami pick and rolls carving up the Pacers’ interior and Ian Mahinmi committing a series of layup-saving fouls (and, yes, I watched them all again, and they were all fouls).
But instead of keeping himself on the floor, he puts his hands on a driving superstar who was about to take the type of shot his coach has been telling him for years that they want LeBron taking.
Again, and like with Lance, it’s just bad decision making. It’s a failure to adjust your behavior after the environment changes. When you are on the frontier of foul trouble, you need to play differently — not get stuck in your head about how you have been wronged in the past and continue operating as if the game just began.
Instead, the Pacers — as illustrated by George and West’s post-game reference to the officiating — don’t even know why this is so dumb. If anything, Paul George, David West, and Frank Vogel should be criticizing their teammates, Lance and Roy, for letting them down by making bad decisions.
I mean, really, those three should be taking the Chris Paul approach and finding the things they did wrong individually, and owning those mistakes while pledging to learn from them. If they are going to be upset with others, however, they should be upset with Stephenson and Hibbert, who ensured that that starters were only on the court together for 13 minutes instead of the 30 they played together during their Game 1 win.
But, nah, let’s blame the refs. Those dudes are jerks.
It’s what makes all this doubly disconcerting.
The Pacers refuse to take accountability for their own actions — and it’s partly because they don’t even know that their individual choices are so poor.