Miami's Second-to-Last Possession and Defending the Guard/Guard Pick and Roll


I would never claim to have suffered as much as a sports fan from, say, Cleveland. Still, as a Pacers fan, I’ve seen my share of tough losses.

I was “Ewing’d” in 1994 by the big guy’s monster put-back dunk in Game 7.

I was “Michael Jordan’d” in 1998 in one of the closest series in NBA history.

I was “Jess Kersey’d” in 1999 by a bogus 4-point play. (Knicks fans swear we were “Larry Johnson’d” but we all know the truth.)

I even saw my hero get “Tayshaun’d” in 2004.

But as far as I remember, I’ve never been the victim of a buzzer beater. I now know what it’s like to be “Reggie’d.”

Of course, in the aftermath of any loss, it’s easy to point a finger at the person we think is most responsible. Many times, we jump to attach blame to someone rather than give credit to the player that deserves it the most. Frank Vogel, almost universally, received the blame for last night’s last-second defensive breakdown as basketball fans, regardless of team affiliation, tried to reconcile exactly how LeBron James could win such a tight game on a wide-open layup.

But is that fair?

Brett Koremenos analyzed the final play, and assigned blame to another person, Paul George (who, to me, is the proper person to blame).

As you look at that last play, remember the following important factors:

  • The 2013 Indiana Pacers led the league in almost every single defensive category with much of the credit going to Frank Vogel’s defensive system.
  • The 2013 Miami Heat are one of the best offensive teams in the NBA.
  • Roy Hibbert protects the rim as well as anyone in the NBA.
  • While LeBron James is unguardable, Paul George does about as good of a job as is possible.
  • The Heat had five shooters including LeBron in the game, spacing the floor to perfection.
  • There were only 2.2 seconds left, prompting both sides of the ball to dramatically change their offensive and defensive philosophies.

I want to take time to place extra emphasis on that last point. While it seems obvious, it’s easy to look at the end result (a LeBron layup at the rim) and conclude that a simple change (Hibbert protecting the paint) would have changed it. Just remember two things: First, LeBron has been known to make layups at the rim over tough defense. The mere presence of Hibbert, as good as he is, may not have affected the final outcome. Further than that, the simple fact that Hibbert would have been in the game doesn’t necessarily mean he would have even been in the lane to challenge the shot in the first place.

Again, Brett highlights exactly what may have happened had Hibbert been in the game. I think we can all agree that an LeBron-on-Hibbert isolation would have been less than desirable.

Paul George made the biggest mistake of anyone on that last possession. In the hopes of crowding LeBron’s space and making his last second jumper (what we all assumed was going to happen) as difficult as possible, George overran his mark and allowed LeBron to get on his hip and get to the basket.

Still, there is only one person in the world that is athletic enough to catch a ball at the 3-point line sprinting towards half-court, turn, take one dribble, and get to the rim in 2.2 seconds. In my opinion, we should be crediting LeBron for his Superman-type play, rather than blaming players like George that single-handedly kept the Pacers in the game down the stretch.

It is probably more profitable to look at Miami’s second-to-last possession to better understand what challenges the Pacers will face the rest of the series. As the game progressed, Miami began running more pick-and-rolls with two guards as opposed to a guard and a big.

The Pacers defend the standard pick-and-roll well because of Hibbert and West’s ability to offer help defense on quicker players while back pedaling into the lane and still challenging the shot. When the action is run with say, Chris Bosh or Udonis Haslem, Hibbert can stay on the ball handler for an extra half second because Haslem and Bosh aren’t as dangerous outside. Even though Bosh is a more-than-capable jump shooter, it still takes him a half-second longer to get set and unload the jumper, giving Hibbert the extra time he needs to challenge the shot.

To counter this, LeBron began running the pick-and-roll with players like Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and even Dwyane Wade. This causes a new problem for the defense in that, if the screener’s defender hedges or “hard shows” in any way, the screener — who is now a very capable outside shooter — will be left alone for an open jumper, maybe even a 3-point attempt. The Pacers, who have made it a purpose to defend the 3-point line this season, began adjusting by “switching” up top. This strategy practically takes the screener completely out of play, but will often end up creating an unfavorable matchup on the ball handler. The Pacers typically handle this action pretty well. George Hill, Lance Stephenson, and Paul George are generally big enough and quick enough to stay with almost any wing in the league for at least one play.

Almost any wing is the key.

LeBron James is the biggest exception.

On Miami’s second-to-last possession, shown in the video above, the Heat ran the pick-and-roll with LeBron and Norris Cole. You will notice that as soon as the screen is set, George Hill jumps over on LeBron, almost to the dismay of Paul George.

When run properly, it’s difficult to defend every wrinkle of a pick-and-roll. So typically, defenses try to “force” the offense into settling for the lowest-percentage option.

In this case, George Hill’s job is to simply try and “contain” LeBron, hoping to force him into a semi-contested jump shot. LeBron may very well hit the pull-up, but that’s what good players do, and it’s better than any other option (leaving Norris Cole alone for a wide open 3-pointer, trying to fight across the screen and leaving LeBron with a wide-open lane, or getting stuck in no-man’s land entirely).

The problem for the Pacers on this specific play was simple: In order to dissuade LeBron from driving, Hibbert needs to be in the game to challenge him. Instead, Hibbert was on the bench, and LeBron decided (rightfully so, I might add) that there was nothing that poor George Hill could do to keep him out of the lane.

Of course I have no proof, but I believe Paul George knew this as soon as the screen was set. As soon as George Hill switched onto LeBron, Paul George practically slumped his shoulders as he anticipated what was about to happen. He even tried to overcompensate by dropping much further off of his man than what the Pacers and Frank Vogel typically teach is beneficial. David West seemed to sense the same thing and left Chris Bosh virtually wide open while trying to strip LeBron of the ball on the drive.

This decision was at least as bad as any other made down the stretch.

I don’t know whether Vogel instructed Hill to switch on the screen in this situation or if Hill did it on his own, but it gave Miami a huge mismatch that LeBron exploited. Paul George did exactly what Vogel tells his team to do: “Not get screened.” He could have easily stayed with James.

But Hill switched, leaving a 6’3″, 185-pound point guard covering the world’s best athlete and basketball player while Indiana’s best defender marked Norris Cole on the three-point line.

It was this lapse, far more than the last play, which was probably the biggest tactical mistake of the night, and honestly, this is what will most dramatically affect the rest of the series: How well can Indiana defend the guard on guard pick-and-roll?

If the Pacers choose to continue switching on it, then they will be asking players like Hill to stay in front of LeBron and force him into taking jump shots. This is probably the best approach. Miami is at its best when Battier, Cole, Chalmers, and even Mike Miller are hoisting up open 3-pointers. LeBron is an unselfish and great enough passer that he will absolutely find his open teammates should the Pacers choose not to switch on these screens. But Hill will still need help. Hibbert must be in the game for the Pacers to defend this play effectively.

The good news is that the Pacers still have a clear advantage in the paint on both ends. A hobbled Dwyane Wade combined with a few more 2-rebound efforts from Chris Bosh just might leave the door open enough for Indiana to win this series. But they must solve the riddle of the guard-on-guard pick-and-roll. It would also help for LeBron not to have too many more Superman-type moments.