Even though the Miami Heat won last night's matchup against the Indiana Pacers with a strong rally late in the fourth quarter, it was Indiana that controlled much of the game. More troubling was Miami's inability to capitalize on Roy Hibbert's foul trouble—he only logged 23 minutes in the contest.
In what will likely be an Eastern Conference Finals matchup, Miami will need to be more effective in the brief instances when Hibbert is on the bench.
Not that this is anything new. For the last three seasons, it's been Hibbert's superb rim protection skills that have completely grinded Miami's offense to a halt. And even in Hibbert's minimized court time last night, Miami once again struggled to score in the paint.
In the long-term, Miami must solve the Roy Hibbert problem. Yes, they've edged past Indiana in six and seven games during the last two year's playoffs. But Paul George is turning into a superstar, Roy Hibbert is only getting more dominant as the years pass and the Miami core—particularly Dwyane Wade and the supporting cast—is aging quickly.
It's not that Miami is in decline as much as it's that Indiana is steadily on the rise. They've improved their bench significantly with the additions of C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, and four out of five starters have yet to hit their primes.
So, this Roy Hibbert problem: What is it, exactly? Quite simply, it's his ability to remain vertical. At 7'2" and standing with his arms straight up into the air, it's virtually impossible to rise up and over Hibbert. This forces defenders to rely on an array of twisting layups, floaters and finishes through contact.
Opponents are currently shooting 49.3 percent against the Pacers at the rim, which is the second-best defensive mark in the league, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Against Hibbert in one-on-one (non-help) situations, that number drops to 40.5 percent.
So how does he do it? Indiana's scheme is tailored to Hibbert's strengths. They essentially filter all pick-and-rolls and drives into Hibbert, daring opponents to finish against him at the rim. Particularly in the pick-and-roll, this means he drops significantly.
Notice how far into the paint he is here. He's not attached to the play at all and is only concerned with anything potentially reaching the restricted area.
Dwyane Wade comes off the screen clean, seemingly with a lot of room to operate. Indiana, however, wants him to pull up and take that jumper or attempt a long floater. While Hibbert protects the lane, the rest of the defense locks up on shooters. This gives the ball-handler zero options—by now, most players know they can't recklessly attack Hibbert to draw a foul—so they settle for these poor shots.
Here, Wade puts up a bad floater.
On a possession later in the game, Miami's early offense generates an elbow isolation for Chris Bosh against Hibbert.
Miami must take advantage of these rare occasions that Hibbert ventures outside the lane. Not only is he a poor defender away from the basket, but there's no secondary rim protection if he's outside. Not to mention that a drive to the rim could yield a foul, an easy way to get him out of the game.
Now, these are rare situations; Hibbert almost always finds a way to stay connected to the rim. But when he does creep outside, there's an opportunity to be had.
Instead, Bosh kicks the ball out, once again leading to a Wade pick-and-roll. This time Hibbert is in a help position but is able to easily rotate over in time because Bosh is not spaced out properly. Against normal teams, Hibbert has an easier time staying in the paint because the opposing 5 will likely not step outside the arc. Bosh has this capability, and it's something Miami probably should explore a bit more.
Hibbert stays vertical and Wade's shot gets blocked. Indiana's defense has worked to perfection.
So how does Miami draw him out besides spacing Bosh? As the team's best pick-and-roll big and one of its lone threats below the free-throw line, you can't exactly waste Bosh's skills by sticking him in the corner. He's also not going to play 40 minutes a night.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has done a solid job adding wrinkles to his offense to demand Hibbert's attention away from the paint.
This play, known as a "floppy" action, has LeBron James setting a screen on Ray Allen's man, Lance Stephenson. Allen then comes off the screen and goes to the right corner, where Chris Andersen sets a second screen on Stephenson. This is known as a double stagger.
In this case, LeBron does an excellent job nailing Stephenson under the rim. Because he gets stuck in the screen, Allen is able to run free to the corner. Andersen reads the play and doesn't go to a set the second screen, instead choosing to pop.
This puts Hibbert in a compromising position. Stick with James under the hoop to prevent an easy dump-in pass, or rush out to Allen, the greatest three-point shooter ever. He chooses the latter, and Allen throws an easy touch pass to Andersen. With Hibbert now in the corner, it's an easy finish for Andersen.
It's not easy to beat Indiana's defense with any type of consistency. All of their starters are above average, if not excellent one-on-one defenders. Even if a ball-handler is able to blow by his man, Roy Hibbert, one of the game's best rim protectors, is lying in wait. There's nowhere to pass with players sticking with shooters. The only shot available is the worst on the floor: off-the-dribble mid-range looks.
To sustain offensively over a seven-game series is nearly impossible; the opponent is able to study your plays extensively, and there's little time to install anything new. The key, then, is execution. The floppy action above is something most teams run. It's just that LeBron doesn't simply brush Stephenson on the way by; he makes a concerted effort to knock him off his spot.
If Indiana and Miami do eventually meet in the playoffs, it's those kinds of details that will make all the difference. These teams have seen enough of each other to know what's in store.