Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Heat and Pacers concluded with a sequence befitting its 53 minutes of give-and-take basketball, through which the most electric talents on both teams made dramatic, game-altering plays.
After a loose-ball scramble with just seconds remaining in overtime, Indiana's Paul George fired a potential go-ahead three-pointer, only to draw a foul on the scrambling Dwyane Wade. George stepped to the line and iced three consecutive free throws, each hitting its mark perfectly without so much as an extra glance off the rim, to give Indiana a one-point lead.
But out of a timeout with 2.2 seconds left, LeBron James eclipsed that dramatic turn with an outstanding individual play of his own -- an unexpected drive when the world anticipated that he would fade. End-game sequences in such a rushed time frame almost always end with a contested jumper, but James saw George in a position of vulnerability and pushed to the rim with abandon. That decision created an opportunity for the best finisher in basketball to lay the ball in just as the clock expired, securing a 103-102 victory for the Heat in Miami.
Noticeably absent from the scene was Indiana center Roy Hibbert, the towering shot-blocker whom Pacers coach Frank Vogel had removed during the timeout after George's three free throws. Vogel opted to pull his defensive anchor for the second time in the closing minute out of concern for how he might be exploited by a Miami lineup loaded with perimeter shooters. (Vogel also subbed out Hibbert on the Heat's previous possession, when James drove for a layup that put Miami ahead 101-99 with 10.8 seconds to play in overtime.)
More than anything, Vogel seemed to understand the challenge of guarding the Heat in end-game situations. Indiana wasn't merely dealing with James, Chris Bosh, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, and Norris Cole (in place of a fouled-out Wade) as individual catch-and-shoot options, after all, but as progressive contingencies in a more complex arrangement of screens and cuts from one of the brightest play-callers in the business. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has proved capable of creating open looks for his team with clipboard ingenuity in just these occasions, and whatever set the Heat ran was sure to challenge the Pacers' mobility and focus.
"That's the dilemma they present when they have Chris Bosh at the five [center] spot," Vogel said. "We put a switching lineup in with the intent to switch and keep everything in front of us."
And that the Pacers did. Spoelstra's play design wasn't intended to free up James for a layup, but merely to create opportunities for several potential options. The first of those options was Bosh, who is at the top of the guy being guarded by Tyler Hansbrough in the picture below. If not for Sam Young's defensive switch with Hansbrough, Bosh would have had a chance to roll to the basket for a lob after receiving a screen from Allen (No. 34, at the free-throw line):
The next trigger was for Allen (hidden behind LeBron near the left elbow in the next screenshot), who immediately curled from his screen toward the left corner. But that option was denied by David West (guarding Battier on the sideline) and trailed closely by Hansbrough:
The final trigger was intended for James, who would be in a position to make some kind of play after the dust and screens had settled. Battier found him in a perfect spot, just beyond the top of the key, and James seized an opportunity to attack against George's off-balance defense.
"Shane definitely gave me a great pass," James said. "I peeked over my left shoulder -- Paul George was a little bit out of place, so I just took off."
The result was a best-case scenario for the Heat, and a tidal wave of criticism mounting to crash on Vogel. Considering the outcome of the play, it is both easy and accurate to blame Vogel for omitting a player capable of challenging James at the rim, particularly when Young and Hansbrough were the only alternatives Indiana could muster. But the factors in play are far more complicated than they might seem on first glance, as the Pacers were forced to defend the best player in the world operating in near optimal spacing. Vogel could have technically parked Hibbert under the rim, but to do so would almost certainly have left Bosh, a fine mid-range shooter, wide open with a chance to win the game. For those with short memories who might advocate such a strategy, I offer the following:
The context was undeniably different in the case of Bosh's game-winner against the Spurs in March, but the more general point stands. Additionally, if the Pacers had Hibbert in the game, they surely would not have been switching every action and thus may have lost track of Allen on his curl to the corner or even ceded a look to Bosh at the top of the floor. Either outcome would have created a lesser look than the one James found at the rim, but a quality opportunity for a potential game-winner nonetheless.
Beyond that, Hibbert's absence is functionally secondary to George's mistake on the perimeter, by which James was able to charge the basket rather than settle for a jumper. If George had recovered to James with slightly better balance, this is a very different possession and potentially a very different result. As it stands, George's misplay came at an incredible price, though its cost seems obscured by the simpler, more resonant blame assigned to Vogel.
The immediate criticism of Vogel's substitution isn't without its merits. Virtually any outcome would have been better for Indiana than the one that transpired, and dropping Hibbert into the middle of the paint would seem the most straightforward way to change the course of Miami's execution. But there's a marked difference between a mistake and a mistake that truly matters, and though we may be convinced that Vogel is guilty of the former, there's still far too much doubt to condemn him of the latter.
Hibbert would have been more helpful in this instance than Young or Hansbrough, perhaps, but the odds are still too great that Hibbert would be pulled away from the rim or scrambled into a switch rather than lying in wait as James stormed toward the basket. It's easy to mentally substitute Hibbert's colossal form for Young's ineffective help near the rim, but keep in mind that in the way the Pacers defended this sequence, Hibbert would have had to begin the play guarding Allen to wind up in that very spot. The potential was there for Hibbert to affect this possession, but the process of assessing his hypothetical impact is riddled with complications.
For that, we can all thank Spoelstra and Pat Riley, the thoughtful architects behind Miami's floor-spreading ideals. When James is surrounded by shooters, the Heat's impeccable spacing induces an uncommon perplexity. It makes opponents think when they should rely on instinct and makes them second-guess when they should lean on their sense of established order. Miami's quickness and flexibility inspire temporary doubt in even the most confident coaches and create a complete breakdown at the core of an elite defense. It's an arrangement so trying as to force compromise in a team that was otherwise concrete in its collective identity -- so exacting, even, that one can't entirely blame Vogel for his moment of panic.