Pacers Leave Roy Hibbert in Game, LeBron James Loses Ball in Clutch
Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel wasn't lying.
After his questionable decision to pull his hulking 7'2", 280-pound rim protector, Roy Hibbert, on a pair of crunch-time possessions in Game 1, he admitted afterward that he'd probably do things differently the next time around.
It could have been a public relations move. Vogel was widely chastised by fans and analysts abound as soon as LeBron James' buzzer-beating layup tickled the twine to give the Miami Heat a 103-102 overtime win in the first game of the series.
It could have been a proactive attempt to avoid any awkward moments with the aforementioned mountain of a man. Or perhaps simply an off-the-cuff response to the exact question he'd been asking himself during a long walk back to the visitors' locker room inside AmericanAirlines Arena.
Turns out it was none of the above. Rather, it was simply an honest answer, and Vogel's decision to hold true to his word just helped his team swipe home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Game 2 wasn't all that different from the series opener.
The superstar battles between James (36 points, eight rebounds) and Paul George (22 points, six assists) were mesmerizing. There were 50 fouls between the two teams, and the high amount of turnovers—13 for Indiana, 14 for Miami—helped keep the contest choppy.
Hibbert (29 points, 10 boards) continued his interior dominance. George Hill (18 points, 6-of-8 from the field) took over the supporting scoring role from David West (13 points, 2-of-9). Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh gave the MVP some assistance (31 points combined), but Miami's support staff struggled once again. (Chris Andersen's seven points were next in line for the Heat.)
Same story for the most part, only a completely different conclusion—one that Vogel allowed Hibbert to see through to the end.
The Pacers scored eight of the game's final 10 points and escaped with a 97-93 win. James had his chances for another heroic late-game performance, but he faltered in the face of Indiana's new-look defensive closers.
The driving lanes James had found in Game 1 disappeared when Hibbert was on the floor.
Here's what James saw on the first of his two layups in the final 10 seconds of overtime on Tuesday night.
A Norris Cole screen forced Paul George off the basketball, leaving only the 6'2", 190-pound Hill standing between the 6'8", 250-pound James and the basket. The threat of Cole, Wade and Ray Allen receiving open looks on the weak side held a trio of potential help defenders at bay.
The only possible helper was West, whose defensive ability extends to physical play in post isolations or battling on the glass. Only once in his nine-year career had he averaged at least one swat a game, maxing out at 1.3 per night in 2007-08—0.5 less than Hibbert's career average.
Didn't it sound too good to be true for the best slasher in the business?
James wasn't going to waste any time to find out, and he powered his way right to the tin for a go-ahead layup.
After George helped the Pacers regain the lead, hitting all three free throws on the opposite end, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra spoke with James about what they should do on the final possession.
Surely, working around Hibbert was part of that game plan. But Vogel kept him off the floor yet again, trading speed for size by thrusting forward Sam Young into the action.
Consider the playbook scrapped at that point.
A series of cuts gave Miami ideal court spacing again, and Indiana's interior looked completely barren.
West, the Pacers' biggest presence on the floor, was glued to the sideline in an effort to harass Shane Battier's inbounds pass. Hill and Hansbrough held tight in the perimeter passing lanes.
An overzealous George closed too hard on James, and the King's quick direction of reversal put his defender on his hip.
He had the basketball at the top of the key, with his momentum pulling him away from the rack with 2.2 seconds to operate. But he was only a power dribble away from the paint, with the 6'6", 225-pound Sam Young as the only defender left to challenge his drive.
It played out exactly as would be expected.
Now, fast-forward 48 hours.
The Heat are in dire need of points, after a pair of Hill free throws gave Indiana a 95-93 edge with less than 50 seconds left in regulation.
Miami looked to James to once again work his magic, but he attempted to catch Indiana napping by whipping the ball across the wing to Allen. West sniffed out the move, though, and intercepted the look.
The Heat came up with a swarming defensive effort at the other end, forcing a shot-clock violation to keep their comeback hopes alive. James wouldn't make the same mistake again, so he poked and prodded for any path to the cup.
But what he saw lurking on the inside was nothing like what he'd seen just two nights before.
George didn't budge off Mario Chalmers' screen and kept stride with James. Indiana's weak side defenders moved closer to the paint.
Its strong side defender was none other than Hibbert himself, who dared James to pass the ball by leaving a wide-open Bosh in the corner.
When James picked up his dribble, Hibbert then moved out to deny his closest target. George held his ground as James tried to look for a shot over his right shoulder, and when he stepped again, West was there for the trap.
James saw an open Allen on the wing and thought he could thread the needle.
He guessed wrong.
And it wasn't only on the game's final possession that Hibbert made his presence felt. James was simply a different player throughout the night when the former Georgetown Hoya was on the floor.
LeBron James: 1-for-2 with 4 turnovers on drives to basket with Roy Hibbert on court, 4-for-5, no turnovers with Hibbert off court— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 25, 2013
Just like in Game 1, the outcome wasn't decided solely on the clutch-time possessions. James will need more out of his teammates, as the Pacers clearly have no intention of letting him create late-game miracles again:
RT @espnstatsinfo: This is the 1st time in LeBron James' career that he had 2 turnovers in the final minute of a playoff game.— The NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 25, 2013
Vogel made the right adjustment on Friday night.
Spoelstra's ability to find a counterstrike won't be known until these two teams square off again on Sunday night in the Circle City (8:30 p.m. ET on TNT).
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