While Roy Hibbert shines, Pacers' defense truly thrives as a collective
Roy Hibbert has come to stand as a towering monument to defensive efficacy during this season and the Eastern Conference finals. He looms over most every play action that the Heat employ or consider, and casts a long shadow over the lane to the rim.
Hibbert's influence could hardly have been more apparent in Game 6, in particular, when the Heat managed just 77 points and (as noted by Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com) posted their lowest field-goal percentage in the paint since LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami in 2010. Whether turning James away at the rim or subtly altering the decision-making of the Heat's scorers, Hibbert has controlled the most crucial area of the floor against an opponent that dominates there with regularity.
In granting Hibbert his much-deserved due, though, we may be at risk of overlooking all else that goes on in the Pacers' team defense. It's tempting to laud Hibbert's shot-altering ability as if he were the only defender on the floor -- the one man standing between Miami and easy layups, or between James and destiny itself. There's certainly truth to that portrayal, but praise, too, should go to the full cast of Indiana defenders who are collectively draining the life out of the league's most potent offense.
Even plays that end with Hibbert so often begin with great coverage elsewhere on the court, especially on the three-point line. The Heat shot remarkably well from outside in Game 6, but uncounted in Miami's three-point shooting percentage are the attempts that the Pacers wiped away entirely with hard close-outs, such as in this sequence involving Miami's Ray Allen and Indiana's Lance Stephenson:
This sequence -- a "hammer" set often employed by Miami -- requires complete awareness from the defenders on the weak side of the court in order to counter. The initial spacing doesn't put Stephenson in a very vulnerable position, but a quick slide into the corner by Allen and a calculated gambit by the Heat's Norris Cole conjure an open passing angle to an outstanding three-point shooter. Stephenson doesn't completely preempt the pass, but by the time Cole jumps out of bounds, he immediately recovers to Allen in the corner and manages to prevent a shot without losing his balance or jumping wildly to contest a potential shot. Allen beating Stephenson off the dribble on a nice drive, but it's that initial denial that detonates Miami's play and forces Allen into Hibbert's help.
The Pacers were similarly effective in locking down the Heat's pick-and-rolls, taking away attempts in delayed transition and denying dribble-drive angles, most of which halted Miami's progress before Hibbert's help could even come into play:
Indiana has counted on this brand of smart, steady perimeter coverage as a means of eating away at the Heat's scoring efficiency. Under most circumstances, Miami spaces the floor too easily and moves the ball too well for defenses to deny it all that much; even if one option is halted, a quality shot is usually a swing pass or two away. But the Pacers combine a remarkable amount of defensive discipline on the perimeter with the impeccable help of both Hibbert and David West -- a foundation that, when combined with the more general struggles of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, has eroded Miami's offensive base.
Things might be different if Wade, in particular, were on top of his game, but we've seen two equally problematic strands of offense from him of late. The first: early, contested jumpers that play right into the Pacers' hands:
The second: desperate forays into the paint that are inevitably swarmed:
Indiana relies on its starting lineup far more than most, and as a result has sharpened its defensive chemistry by way of continuity. Stephenson understands that if he makes Wade go middle on his post attempt, the help -- whether from West or Hibbert -- will be there. In this case, it's West who steps in to smother the play, but don't undersell the basic, directional defense that Stephenson employs from the outset. Wade, in general, loves to attack defenses by working baseline, but in this instance Stephenson controls for that option, stands his ground to buy the help defense time and helps bottle up a close-range attempt from a struggling scorer.
Paul George had similar success in guarding James in the post, a matchup that appeared fatal for the Pacers as recently as Game 3. In that game, James was able to back down the far leaner George easily and spin into easy scores. In Game 6, that productive approach was replaced with this:
James can obviously make that shot, but George challenges his attempt well and the Pacers on the whole influence the course of the play with their positioning. After entering the ball to James on the wing for a post-up try, the Heat clear out the entire left side of the floor and overload the right -- a decision would seem to provide good spacing for James to operate. But in doing so (and in remaining stagnant on that side of the floor as opposed to cutting), all Miami has done is reduce the number of threats that the Pacers have to cover.
Wade is parked outside the three-point line, a range at which Indiana need pay him no mind. Udonis Haslem is stationed on the baseline, but he is so close to the play that Hibbert can stand in the middle ground. Mario Chalmers makes a quick curl through the paint after feeding James, but he ultimately settles in with Wade and Bosh in a cluster that makes it that much more difficult for LeBron to kick the ball out to any one of them. As a result of all of this, George is able to play James closely while four Pacers keep a foot in the paint, an array of help options that go well beyond Hibbert.
James is aware of this, just as he's aware of Hibbert's presence on every drive to the rim. It's turned him into a blunt instrument rather than an exacting tool, and on occasions like the one above, it takes away nearly every alternative by marginalizing almost every one of James' teammates.
It can't be forgotten that two of the Heat's stars have struggled, but it's the Pacers' defense that has invited callbacks to the LeBron-led Cavaliers. Things have reached the point where Indiana's D is so stout as a collective that Tyler Hansbrough can guard Allen, foul-troubled wings can take refuge against Wade and Bosh can be left open on the perimeter without much concern. There's a convolution of Miami's struggles and Indiana's successes that's almost impossible to fully unwind, but that in itself is only a testament to the Pacers' awareness. They've caught breaks, and through Hibbert, they have help. But Indiana's players on the whole understand the specifics of their coverage so intimately that they exploit even the most unexpected advantages and rise to the challenge of stopping the Heat through smart execution and simple adjustment.