The Battle Before the Ball

by Couper Moorhead

Well, that was familiar, wasn’t it?

Maybe this season’s first entry into the battle between the Indiana Pacers and Miami HEAT fell a bit short – but not that short, for the regular season – of the intensity of the Eastern Conference Finals, but Miami’s 90-84 loss was decided by all the same factors.

Did the HEAT force a ton of turnovers? The Pacers turned the ball over 21 times after averaging more than 17 a game in the Conference Finals.

Did the HEAT make their open shots? The struggled finishing against Roy Hibbert at the rim, but had one of their worst shooting nights in three years going 4-of-21 from downtown. If you’re looking for a silver lining, that’s it. Miami lost by six despite a number of quality looks until the offense got mucked up in the final quarter.

Did the HEAT contain Roy Hibbert? Short version: nope. Long version: Hibbert had 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting. So . . . nope.

As the Pacers have effectively replaced the Boston Celtics as Miami’s primary foe, it’s fitting that the manner in which Hibbert gives them fits is reminiscent of the problems Kevin Garnett once posed. They’re different players, of course, but when Garnett would have an efficient 20-plus-point outing against the HEAT, it wasn’t because the Celtics were just throwing him the ball and telling him to go to work in the post.

By and large, a traditional post-up starting about 15 feet from the rim is, without factoring in the impact is has on the defense and the passing opportunities it creates, one of the least efficient scoring possessions in the game. Hibbert may be a behemoth with one of the softest touches around, but throw him the ball in a traditional post-up and he only shoots a tick over 40 percent.

If the Pacers are going to force feed their big man, the HEAT can live with possessions like this:

Like Garnett before him, when Hibbert is making the paint his playground it’s because the HEAT are losing all the little battles that take place before he gets the ball. The Celtics used to run high pick-and-rolls with Garnett and Rajon Rondo that led to Garnett diving right down the middle of the floor, where Boston’s spacing creating a nice little seam, and Rondo delivering crisp over-the-top passes where only Garnett could get them.

By the time Garnett caught the pass he was five feet away from the rim with defenders scrambling to get to him. It created the illusion that Garnett was torching the interior defense with fancy moves and smooth finishes. In reality, the damage was done before Garnett even touched the ball.

Through sheer size alone, Hibbert does beat Miami up in the paint. But the Pacers utilize many of the same actions as the Celtics to put Hibbert in the best position to best take advantage of his gifts – in a quick, decisive manner.

Against Boston the solution was almost always to clean up the backline rotations in front of Garnett and pressure Rondo out of making such deadly passes. The issues were internally fixable. The same is true against Indiana, to a degree.

Many think of Chris Bosh, the de-facto center, as the player most responsible for containing Hibbert, but by putting Hibbert and Bosh in the pick-and-roll the Pacers put the onus on Miami’s small-ball power forwards to keep him away from the rim. In the above possession, it’s not that Shane Battier is particularly slow on his rotation, he’s just enough microseconds off that in combination with Miami not pressuring Paul George enough on the pass, Hibbert gets the pass just outside the restricted circle rather than a couple feet further out.

Battier is still there and Bosh still recovers quickly enough to contest the shot – fouling in this instance – but there’s only so much Battier can do when giving up so much size. Hibbert shoots a little better than 40 percent in the paint outside the restricted area, so Miami isn’t giving up the best shot, but those shots become a little easier when Hibbert can just go up over the top of the rotating defender.

Frank Vogel is doing this on purpose, of course, and doing it specifically against Miami (and presumably other smaller teams). Hibbert only uses about a possession and a half as the roll man in a pick-and-roll per game, but against Miami he used five such possessions.

And why not, when you can put even LeBron James at a disadvantage?

That’s another not-exactly-easy shot for Hibbert, but you can still force a tougher one. Put a little more pressure on the ball, rotate over a step sooner, and now Hibbert has to shoot from here:

The alternative to using Hibbert in pick-and-rolls for Indiana, when they don’t free him for a post-up using cross-screens, is to attack Miami post-fronting tactics. And that is a dicey situation for just about every team in the league.

If you don’t pressure the passer and the over-the-top lob – one of the toughest passes for anyone to throw – is perfect, then it works out just like this.

But if the pass isn’t perfect, then … actually that worked out just fine for Indiana, too.

The entire evening was an impressive display of passing and execution from the Pacers, but it was also an imperfect – and slightly unlucky – defensive game from the HEAT. Historical precedent has the HEAT getting beat by similar actions, but precedent would also lead you to believe that few teams will run the pick-and-roll so consistently and that Hibbert won’t make as many of these hooks shots. And the HEAT typically clean up the rotational issues to the extent that they can.

But whatever the percentages tell us, the HEAT can’t count on Hibbert missing the shots he made. If he’s consistently getting touches within ten feet of the rim, then the damage is done. The battle is won and lost before Hibbert even gets the ball.

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