Everyone knew that the interplay between Chris Bosh and Roy Hibbert would go a long way toward determining the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, but nobody expected that narrative to play out as obviously as it did in Game 1 Wednesday night.
LeBron James converted two driving layups within the final 10 seconds of overtime, the second of which gave the Heat a shocking win at the buzzer. And as everyone immediately noted, Hibbert wasn't on the floor to defend the rim on either of James' point-blank finishes.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel admitted that his decision to leave Hibbert on the bench in those critical situations had everything to do with Bosh. Per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh:
Vogel explained his controversial decision to go with a switching lineup with 2.2 seconds remaining in the game with the Heat down one, citing the Heat's versatility and the potential for Chris Bosh making a long jumper to win the game.
There's a certain logic to that thinking. But it also seems to overlook the notion that a Bosh jumper is dangerous, while a James layup is fatal.
Vogel has been catching hell from every angle for his decision to sit his best rim-protector when he needed him most. The numbers bore out how much of a layup deterrent Hibbert was in Game 1, as James attempted only three field goals inside of five feet in the 38 minutes in which Indiana's big man was patrolling the paint.
In the nine minutes Hibbert rested, though, James fired up six shots from within that same distance. There's no getting around it: Hibbert would have had an effect on that final play.
But we're not here to talk about what Frank Vogel (who has done a masterful job all season long) should have done. We're looking at the matchup between Chris Bosh and Roy Hibbert as it pertains to the future of this series. It's just worth noting that Vogel's fear of Bosh—however misprioritized—was a key reason for the Heat's series-opening win.
Idea for Hibbert not being in the game was so he wouldn't over commit and leave Bosh open for the jumper. But no rim protection is result.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) May 23, 2013
Speaking broadly, the conventional wisdom that says the Bosh-Hibbert matchup is critical goes roughly as follows:
Bosh spaces the floor with his unparalleled mid-range accuracy. No player in the league—regardless of position—shot it better from 16-23 feet than Bosh, who converted those shots at a 53 percent clip. Therefore, he's got the ability to pull Hibbert away from the paint on defense.
Indiana's entire defensive scheme is built around directing traffic toward Hibbert in the lane. But if he's not there because he's honoring Bosh's deadly jumper, the well-oiled machine that is Indy's D could conceivably grind to a halt.
At the same time, Hibbert's size and rebounding skill makes him a difficult cover for Bosh.
It's all pretty basic, really; if Bosh hits jumpers, the Heat have an advantage. But if Hibbert dominates on the inside and Bosh doesn't get hot, it's the Pacers that have an edge.
For what it's worth, Bosh himself mentioned that his matchup would be determinative of the series' outcome. Said Bosh before the series began, via Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald:
I’m going to have to have a big match up with Roy. I feel he is the X factor for them. I’m the X factor for this team. This is going to be, I think, the matchup that really turns the series.
What's interesting is that even though everyone agrees that the center matchup is, in theory, a major one, nothing from the regular-season contests between these two teams portrays that.
Bosh outplayed Hibbert in the three meetings between the teams this year, averaging 17 points per game on 58 percent shooting. Hibbert struggled with foul trouble and only managed 9.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game on 38 percent shooting. What's more, Bosh actually blocked more shots per game (1.7) than Hibbert (0.7) in the series.
And yet the Pacers took two out of three from the Heat in the regular season. Weird, right? Even though the small sample of regular-season games doesn't necessarily corroborate the conventional wisdom on the significance of the Hibbert-Bosh matchup, we learned in Game 1 that it really is one of the series' biggest keys.
Going forward, it'll be fascinating to watch how both teams adjust.
According to Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star, Vogel has said he'll "probably" have Hibbert in should a similar Game 1 situation arise.
If that happens, though, we're kind of right back where we started—with Bosh presenting a unique perimeter option that Hibbert might struggle to contain.
In Game 1, the two big men both played to something approximating a draw. Bosh had 17 points on just 11 shots and registered a pair of blocks. Hibbert defended the rim, scored 19 points and blocked a pair of shots himself. But the matchup swung in favor of Bosh and the Heat in the final seconds.
As it turns out, the matchup between Hibbert and Bosh really has proved to be as important as advertised. But as James' game-winner showed, its greatest significance lies not in the one-on-one battle between the two centers, but in the way their very different skill sets affect the strategy of both teams as a whole.