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Chris Bosh and the Value of a Foul

by Couper Moorhead

It’s common sense. If a team builds its central scheme on one end of the floor around the skills and abilities of an individual player, it behooves the opponents of said team to separate the heart from the beast, so to speak. During the heyday of the Steve Nash Phoenix Suns, the Suns – at least in 2007-08, for when we have appropriate data – had a historically great offense when Nash was on the floor. When he hit the bench for about 15 minutes a game, the offense sunk to league-worst levels.

There was simply no way for Phoenix to replace what Nash gave them, and teams were blessed with every minute he wasn’t on the court. Unfortunately for those gearing up for a campaign against the Suns, point guards aren’t the easiest players to foul out. If a guard doesn’t want to get in the way of contact, he can step aside and let bigger, taller players handle the situation.

Those big men don’t have the same luxury, especially if they’re at the core of a defensive system that sends all traffic directly into their chests. Like Nash, the side of the floor that Hibbert specializes in is operating at historic efficiency. Unlike Nash, Hibbert has to fight off fouls for the right to stay on the court all game long.

Defense is a bit of a different story, of course. It’s easier to sustain defensive efficiency when individuals hit the bench because the right system, with the right effort and the right execution, can cover up all sorts of blemishes. So even though the Pacers’ defense is effectively Shiva, God of Death when Hibbert plays, it still manages to function at the level of a Top-5 defense when his backup, Ian Mahinmi, takes over rim-protecting duties.

Still, you take away a team’s primary source of ground and aerial defense and they become all the more susceptible to plays such as. . .

From historic to just really good is incentive enough for any team to try and get Hibbert into foul trouble, but the Miami HEAT – against whom Hibbert often scores like the stuff of legend – enjoy the added bonus that without their starting center, the Pacers go from an average offense to league-worst depths. Given the massive tradeoffs in efficiency, a foul on Hibbert is worth its weight in gold.

“Obviously, when he’s out of the game they are not the same offensively, no question,” Shane Battier said. “So there’s a premium on Hibbert fouls.”

Fouls wouldn’t be quite so valuable if they were in abundant supply. They’re in demand because Hibbert has become so adept at avoiding them – committing fewer than four fouls per 36 minutes. He isn’t going to get into trouble by mere accidents alone.

“You have to be aggressive against Hibbert,” Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s earned the respect of being, really, a phenomenal defender at the rim and in the paint. He’s improved so much each year and now he’s invented, really, and created a game unto itself.

“But you can’t stop being aggressive because of his reputation. You have to make plays at the rim but you have to be smart about it.”

During their loss in Indiana last week, the HEAT struggled to catch Hibbert at a disadvantage. When they ran pick-and-rolls they took the jumpers conceded by Hibbert’s stay-back-and-beckon style of defense. When they attacked Hibbert in the paint, they attacked at angles that allowed him to beat the ball to a spot and establish his own vertical air space. In turn, Hibbert played 37 minutes, posted 24 points and was generally a terror.

A week later, the HEAT found their feng shui. Three fouls in the first half kept Hibbert’s minutes down, and another pair early in the third had him sitting for more than 12 consecutive minutes of game time. And those crucial final fouls were the results of Chris Bosh mixing things up.

“Last game, I gave them too much of the same look," Bosh said. “Sometimes the progression is different, you have to really look at what’s going on and the past few games I’ve been just trying to do a better job of being aware of my situation and my surroundings and mixing it up. Because if you give them a healthy dose of the same thing you know where you’re going.”

It’s a difficult balance Bosh has to strike, and one that's easy to take for granted. He’s one of the most efficiency jump-shooters in the league and he can get an open pick-and-pop jumper just about whenever he wants against Indiana’s chosen style. Sometimes the jumper is the right play, especially when even beating Hibbert leads you right into a pack of defenders.

But jumpers don’t create contact. Jumpers keep Hibbert on the floor. Even though there’s efficiency to be had on the fringes of the paint, Bosh has to also put pressure on the paint in addition to the efforts of his teammates.

“We do understand that with Hibbert on the court they’re an unbelievable defensive team,” Dwyane Wade said. “You do want to put pressure on him, make him make decisions and put him in situations. Some games it worked for us and some games it doesn’t.”

It worked on Wednesday, not because Miami’s players barreled into the lane at every chance, but they created and utilized enough of the right opportunities.

“You can’t spend your time just trying to make him foul,” Battier said. “It has to come out of the flow of the offense. Some of the best attacks were when we were not trying to attack him directly, where you make him slide and then recover, [and] try to block your shot.”

“Chris mixed it up enough, with his rolls to the rim on pick-and-rolls, dives in different areas and then the catch-and-go’s,” Spoelstra said. “You can live with the calls, whether you get them or not.”

You go at Hibbert, you’re going to lose out on some judgment calls. That’s the way the game is. But you can’t put the officials in position to issue judgment without first stepping into the arena. And even though a straight isolation isn’t always the best way to attack Hibbert, it can be the different look that sits him down.

“[You get him] back-pedaling,” Battier said. “[Hibbert’s] strength is being able to see the play develop and use the ‘verticality rule’ to his advantage, which he does very well. But when you get him moving laterally that’s when the verticality rule isn’t in effect.”

A couple different looks get Hibbert on the bench, and now you’re getting the Pacers to overcompensate with help in the paint, opening up three-point looks on a night when the perimeter was failing you.

“With Roy not being out there [it] caused us to be in to help and protect the rim even more,” Paul George said. “They were just putting it on, driving recklessly to the basket, forcing rotations, swinging it and finding guys open.

Now, when you attack from the perimeter, you’re meeting players at the rim that stand a little shorter than one of the league’s elite defensive players.

“Him not being on the floor limited us defensively sometimes,” George said.

Thanks to some late threes Miami beat the Pacers Wednesday to even the season series, but that’s largely beside the point right now. Regular season games between these teams are still trial runs, and in fact the Pacers actually played Miami to a relative standstill as Hibbert sat in this one. What’s going to matter is whether or not the HEAT can draw these fouls on Hibbert in the playoffs.

It won’t happen in every game, either. With fouls there’s simply too much you cannot control. You can’t control whether or not Hibbert gets called for a charge as he and Battier collided in the first quarter, or whether he’ll step on the foot of Mario Chalmers in the second and get whistled for another. There’s too much randomness to ever truly depend on foul trouble. But it can be part of your process. Follow your process, find the right balance and draw a couple pressure fouls out of Hibbert in every game and a couple random whistles put you over the top and Hibbert on the bench.

But if the HEAT don’t put enough pressure on the paint, there’s no call to be made. They didn’t win a mid-December game because of foul calls – those fouls were simply a positive result of the HEAT seeking the more probable path to success.