For basketball fans, the most depressing part of this entire series has been the overwhelming lack of quality basketball that has been played by both teams at the same time.
In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers pushed the Heat to the brink before ultimately failing in Game 7. Although Indiana’s offense was still pretty bland and predictable, the Pacers, especially “The Five” (their starting five who has been one of the best units in the league for three years running) still put together long stretches of serviceable if not efficient offense that may have been good enough to win the series were it not for Indiana’s atrocious bench unit.
More than anything else, both teams just appeared to be operating at peak levels and while Game 7 was a letdown, this season held lots of promise for an exciting and enticing Round 3.
Then, everything that happened to the Pacers over the last three months happened, resulting in a near loss to one of the worst playoff teams in recent memory and a harder-than-anticipated Round 2 struggle against a young Wizards squad. Since the first half of Game 1, the Pacers had been badly outplayed by the Heat. They had a +/- of -27 and for the most part, just looked like a mediocre basketball team.
While Game 5 will likely (and rightly) be remembered for LeBron’s bizarre foul trouble and Paul George’s monstrous 4th quarter, what will be lost is the fact that for the first time all series, both teams played pretty quality basketball for the final six minutes of the 4th quarter. Fans that stayed around for the end saw something they hadn’t witnessed in the Eastern Conference playoffs for over a year – Good and Exciting basketball.
At their best, the Heat stretch the floor with 3-pt shooters, opening up driving lanes for both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and move the ball quickly and decisively while creating wide open looks for seemingly every player on the floor.
The Pacers, meanwhile, grind down their opponents defensively with tough-nosed man-to-man defense. On the rare occasions defensive players do get beat, the Pacers choose not to over help from any one position, opting rather to have Roy Hibbert drive people away from the basket while the other defenders rotate over onto 3-pt shooters – especially the ever dangerous corner three.
A closer look at the last play of the game showcased both teams at the top of their games.
Now for some step-by-step analysis.
The first thing you will notice is just how much space LeBron has inside. The Pacers and Roy Hibbert often pride themselves on the famous “2.9” rule. The Big Fella will often stay in the lane as long as possible in order to discourage drivers from attacking the rim.
Yet, Miami’s spacing is perfect and in a rare occurrence, the Pacers don’t have a single defensive player in the lane other than Paul George who is on an island with the greatest player on earth. George, for his part, stays in front of LeBron about as well as is humanly possible, but most would agree that even with George’s defensive brilliance, LeBron and the Heat really like their chances with the ball in this spot.
There’s just a lot to like from both teams on this play. At the highest level, six inches here and there can make such a huge difference. On the Heat side of things, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, and Rashard Lewis aren’t just “around” the 3-pt arc, but they are all decidedly behind the line. This forces both George Hill and David West to rotate the maximum possible distance in order to cover the shooters.
Miami placed its three best 3-pt shooters on the same side of the floor as well, leaving them two options on the play if LeBron can’t score himself: 1) LeBron can kick it to the short corner to Wade who can catch the ball sprinting towards the basket with all sorts of space, or 2) LeBron can kick it to the other corner where Bosh can either take the shot, or swing it around the horn to Lewis who will be left wide open.
Fortunately for Indiana, they aren’t most teams. Just one second later, Hibbert has moved into a good spot, already positioning himself to take advantage of the “verticality” rule that he has made famous. But Hibbert isn’t the only player that has made an adjustment. Paul George has not given up on the play, still preparing to “challenge from behind” on the attempted shot, something that Vogel and the Pacers’ staff has constantly preached for three years.
In the short corner, Lance Stephenson is glued to Wade (who apparently can shoot threes nows as he said after Game 3). On Hibbert’s side, both George Hill and David West are starting the all important off-ball rotation. Notice, however, that while George Hill is already moving to cover Bosh, West stays on Lewis for an extra half-second, knowing that he can get to Allen if needed but a direct pass to Lewis would leave the Heat’s deadliest shooter, Ray Allen, completely unguarded on a quick swing pass.
Finally, the moment of truth comes, and LeBron chooses to hit Chris Bosh, a guy who has hit a ridiculous 55% of his corner threes in the playoffs (including a staggering 82.5% eFG) for a potential game-winning shot. Whether you believe LeBron should have attacked the best rim defender at the rim at the end of a game in which he only played 23 minutes and had almost no offensive rhythm is inconsequential. LeBron made his choice, and it was a good one. His pass is on time and on target and Bosh is left to shoot the ball over an opposing point guard.
Again though, the Pacers played it as perfectly as possible. The rangy Hill challenges the shot incredibly well as West is close enough to Ray Allen to discourage any quick ball movement from Chris Bosh. It’s actually borderline miraculous that Hill, a player who was just glued to Ray Allen just two seconds earlier, is less than a step away from Bosh when he lined up his jumper.
In the end, Bosh missed a jumper that very easily could have gone in against very good defense. The gamesmanship of the entire scenario is fascinating, what with Vogel electing to pull Hibbert from the same situation in last year’s ECF, only to have the situation come back to bite him. One has to wonder if Miami knew Vogel would respond differently and reacted by calling a play for Hibbert’s man in the corner. Regardless, the result is all anyone will talk about as some of the narrative will undoubtedly focus on the perceived “unclutchness” of the world’s greatest player. But for those that want to rise above that nonsense, you can appreciate really good basketball again – the final play in particular.