Heartbreakers are hardly unusual in the NBA playoffs, but the Indiana Pacers' 103-102 overtime loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals figures to sting more (and for longer) than your run-of-the-mill defeat of this order.
The backlash (and the backlash to the backlash) (and the backlash to the backlash to the backlash) to some of Pacers coach Frank Vogel's decisions during the game is the sort that's tough to live down, and that will likely be re-dissected and re-analyzed for years to come.
Unless, of course, Indy can leave behind the pain of its initial shortfall and/or use that pain to propel itself to a strong showing in Game 2 and beyond. The fact that the Pacers were in it until the end and had their fair share of opportunities to seal the deal speaks volumes of their competency in this matchup.
If Vogel and his players heed a few key warnings inherent in their Game 1 performance, they may well give the defending champs a run for their money before this series is through.
Trust in What's Worked
According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, Frank Vogel has never been shy to praise Roy Hibbert as one of the game's premier protectors of the paint. He also suggested, just prior to Game 1, that he wouldn't play into the Heat's hands, as he doesn't and wouldn't downsize just to match up with Miami's shooters.
Then, in the heat of the moment, Vogel betrayed his better judgment not once, but twice during the final 24 seconds of overtime. First, he subbed out Hibbert for Sam Young, only to see LeBron James scurry right by George Hill for an uncontested layup. Then, with 2.2 seconds left on the clock, Vogel sent Hibbert back to the bench, with Young and Tyler Hansbrough on the bench, only to see James once again sprint to the rim for an easy, game-winning finish.
Vogel's dual decisions prompted all manner of immediate second-guessing from those who disagreed with them, as well as defense from those (like Ric Bucher) who felt that Paul George was more at fault for overplaying LeBron and/or that Vogel was right to trot out a more switch-friendly lineup.
For the record, I'm in the camp among those who think Hibbert should've been out there. According to Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry, Hibbert is not only an elite rim protector, but also a bona fide LeBron deterrent, as ESPN.com's Henry Abbott points out. Under those circumstances (i.e. 2.2 seconds left, a one-point lead to protect), your team's goal should be to prevent the easiest two points and, if possible, keep the best player in basketball from attempting those two. There's no way to know exactly how things would've played out had Hibbert been present for that last possession, though it's reasonable to suggest that Miami's clinching shot might not have come so easily had Hibbert been there to disrupt the action, be it at the rim, on the inbounds or elsewhere.
The more important point is, Vogel, while still an excellent coach, fell into a trap that so many of his colleagues have under such unfamiliar pressure in the past: He over-coached. Rather than trusting in what'd worked for him all season—and what'd helped his Pacers reach the conference finals for the first time in the post-Reggie Miller era—he opted to flip the script.
Vogel, of all coaches, should've understood the follies inherent in such a switch, and probably does now. He'd just finished up a series against the New York Knicks in which Mike Woodson attempted to match the Pacers' unmatchable size, only to see his Knicks lose handily while Kenyon Martin gobbled up crucial minutes (and threw off New York's rotational balance) whilst in the starting five.
One antsy screw-up was enough to remind Woodson of Shania Twain's First Rule of Success and should prove sufficient in Vogel's case as well.
Avoid Sam Young Like the Plague
It's possible that the Pacers could've contested LeBron's "gimme" layups even without Hibbert on the court. Ian Mahinmi, Hibbert's primary backup, is a long, athletic, 6'11" center who'd played with tremendous energy that night and might've done well to provide help on either (or both) of James' drives.
But Frank didn't call Mahinmi's number in those instances. Instead, he turned to Sam Young, a 6'6" swingman whose size made him "ideal" for an all-switching lineup, but whose performance in these playoffs rendered him an all-around liability.
What makes him such a liability, you ask? Where do I begin?
He's missed 10 of his 14 shots to this point. He's racked up nearly as many fouls (11) as points (12). The Pacers have been outscored by 22 points in the 69 minutes he's played in this postseason (though, to be fair, he's hardly alone in that regard among Indy's reserves). He looked like a bumbling fool in Game 1 against the Knicks, wherein he picked up a foul and turned the ball over three times in a minute and a half.
And, in the case of the Pacers' loss to the Heat, Young doesn't exactly sport the sort of height, length, strength or athleticism to protect the rim—especially when the player most likely to challenge him (i.e. LeBron) owns every physical edge imaginable in that matchup.
By and large, then, Young's presence on the floor has hardly coincided with positive outcomes for the Pacers. It's one thing for Vogel to call Young's number when his starting bigs are in foul trouble or if they need a rest. It's another, though, for him to willingly waste the most meaningful minutes on a guy who's been such a massive "minus" in so many ways in these playoffs.
Ball Security is Key
As easy as it is to harp on one or two moments for supposedly deciding the outcome of a game, it's just as easy to forget that every possession counts toward the final result.
As does every possession lost. The Pacers gave the ball away a whopping 20 times in Game 1, off which the Heat scored 22 points.
That may not seem quite so bad when considering that Miami gave up 18 points off 20 turnovers. But, unlike the Heat, the Pacers can't count on a crisply run, up-tempo offense and/or a superb fast break to make up the difference in scoring opportunities. Indy counts on a slow, deliberate style of play to grind out points and, as such, can ill-afford to allow its teased-out possessions to end without a shot attempt.
Granted, this is nothing new for the Pacers. They tallied the NBA's second-highest turnover percentage during the regular season, at 16.2 percent and have seen that share climb to 17.6 percent in these playoffs—a mark "bested" only by the Boston Celtics, who were eliminated three weeks ago.
It's probably unrealistic to expect that the Pacers will correct a season-long bad habit at this point. And, truth be told, they've done well to get to this point and compete with the Heat, in spite of their own mistakes.
Still, if Indy doesn't want to worry about games coming down to the wire, it'd do well to take better care of the ball beforehand.
Put a Body on the Birdman
And, for that matter, to watch where the ball's going, especially when the recipient is Chris Andersen. The Birdman torched the Pacers for 16 points on a perfect 7-of-7 from the field in just 18 minutes off the bench in Game 1. Predictably enough, all seven of those makes came at the rim—six assisted, one following an offensive rebound.
To be sure, Andersen is hardly Miami's most menacing offensive threat. With the likes of LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen on the floor at any given moment, it's incumbent upon the opposition to pick its personnel-oriented poison.
But if we're thinking in terms of spatial probabilities instead of strictly individual ones, then it makes more sense to protect more vigorously against layups and dunks than against, say, jump shots. In that case, it makes perfect sense for Vogel to emphasize the importance of getting a body on the Birdman.
Lest he watch his team be victimized by a never-ending series of high-percentage shots from the tattooed tormentor.
Beyond the minutiae of in-game tactics and day-to-day adjustments, it's imperative that Vogel and the Pacers take to heart the most important lesson of all from Game 1—that they belong in the Eastern Conference Finals and that they can compete with the Heat now that they're here.
Indy's success against Miami is no fluke. The Pacers possess the size and strength to punish the Heat inside, the length and athleticism to bother them on the perimeter, and the team-wide commitment to stifling defense to make Miami sing for its supper every time down the floor.
The Pacers managed to take two of three from the defending champs during the regular season, and nearly stole Game 1 of this series by playing to their own strengths rather than by trying to beat the Heat at their own game. They also owned a 2-1 series lead on Miami last year, albeit with the help of Chris Bosh's absence.
Nonetheless, Indy must know full well that it can win one game on Miami's home floor—which is all the Pacers might need, considering their perfect record (and impressive point differential) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the 2013 playoffs.