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Roy Hibbert

The Problematic Pacers

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NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat

I’m not sure that Game 6 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals could have been more predictable.

A rousing Miami Heat blowout wasn’t expected because of anything that happened in Game 5, it was just that, after these past few months, this was exactly how everyone envisioned the Indiana Pacers’ season coming to an end. Following all of the drama and the stretches of incompetence, watching Indiana helplessly standby as LeBron James ripped them to shreds, their offense wilting under Miami’s pressure, seemed like a fitting end to a season that had been progressively building towards a massive letdown.

For a team that had already shown signs of mental weakness, being defeated in that fashion has to be indefinitely crippling.

The Pacers talked all season about the importance of having homecourt advantage for a Game 7 and they spent all season saying that they were built to take down the Heat. They had to survive a couple of scares just to get to this point, being taken to seven games by the paltry Atlanta Hawks in the opening round and losing Game 1 against the Wizards in Round 2, but they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and they had the homecourt advantage that they desperately wanted. After everything they went through on and off the court, they ended up right where everyone expected them to be as June approached.

But on Friday night, the Pacers were once again met with the devastating truth that has haunted them over the past few years: The Miami Heat are a lot better than them.

Indiana was an awesome team for most of this season. As hard as their style can be on the eyes, they deserve appreciation for their brilliant defensive work. Credit for the Pacers’ success could be spread amongst all of their starters and to their head coach. Armed with a smart scheme that took advantage of the individual defensive abilities of Roy Hibbert, Indiana had the best defense in the league, which is something to be proud of even with their offensive ineptitude.

In the Eastern Conference, which is littered with a number of teams that struggle mightily offensively, that defense was enough to make them dominant on most nights, and they even proved to be a problem for Miami during the regular season. Thus, even with minimal adjustments to their roster outside of the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, the Pacers gained confidence regarding their eventual post-season matchup with the Heat.

And yet, this series wasn’t all that competitive. Looking back, perhaps that is not all that surprising. In 2012, the Pacers put up a tough fight, but Miami was also missing Chris Bosh for most of that series, and last year it was Dwyane Wade that was not totally healthy when Indiana took the defending champions to seven games. But still, with Miami looking like they took a small step back this season, there seemed to be hope for Indiana in this series.

Instead, Indiana ran into the team that is perfectly constructed to belittle their biggest strength, a team designed to destruct the rigid defense that acts as their sole lifeline. As odd as it would seem having a flawed team like the Pacers in the NBA Finals, if they were playing the Thunder in the Eastern Conference Finals, they may very well have punched themselves a ticket to the final round. But Miami is just so ruthlessly efficient offensively that not even the league’s most dominant defense can slow them down, and with Wade and James both at peak form, Indiana’s clunky offense was no match for the Heat.

Some will say that the Pacers were built for a different era when smallball and pushing the pace was less popular, but I think this team could have reached the Finals had they come along not even five or six years ago, before Miami’s supreme trio came together. Had these Pacers been running into the Kevin Garnett-era Celtics in the Conference Finals over the past few years, a team that had similar struggles offensively and an equally great defense, Indiana’s edge in individual talent may have earned them a trip to the Finals – although I shudder to think what Kevin Garnett would do to Hibbert’s psyche.

But Indiana had no such luck. For three years running, their final game of the season has come against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. It’s somewhat sobering, I suppose, that this group of guys, as flawed as they were, could come together to create a historically good defense, only to have LeBron crack the code time after time.

And their Game 6 loss on Friday night looked much worse than their two previous eliminations at the hands of the Heat. Whereas their last two losses created hope that they may be able to take down Miami in the future, this loss felt like this group had reached the end of their journey, and that there was no future for any Eastern Conference team so long as LeBron is around.

Lance Stephenson totally lost control after a series full of immature antics, leading Paul George to say “I don’t know” when asked about bringing him back next season. George Hill fell apart, struggling to even bring the ball up the floor at times. Roy Hibbert completed one of the most unbelievable individual collapses of all-time, failing to take control in a matchup he had previously owned for reasons that have to rooted with something off the court. And George, the player that looked like a budding superstar this time last year and the guy who was garnering legitimate praise as a top five player at the beginning of the season, had flashes of excellence mixed with occasional on-court sabbaticals, a sign that he is not yet on the level of his all-world peers.

Everyone in Indiana’s lockerroom bought into the idea that this was their best shot at dethroning the Heat, but somewhere along the line, things fell apart and their dreams were derailed. Now the Pacers enter the off-season with more questions than answers.

And even if they find those answers, given their luck, LeBron will probably switch up the equation.

It’s Going Down!

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors

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The scene was set for a historic afternoon of Raptors basketball, with the city of Toronto showing up in huge numbers to support their team in its first post-season appearance since the Vince Carter era. The Air Canada Centre was filled to the brim and another 10,000 raucous fans waited outside the arena watching the game on a big screen. There was a palpable energy in the building from the tip and you could tell that everybody in the stands was waiting for that one moment that would allow them to blow the roof off of the building.

But that moment never came. The closest the Raptors came to giving their home crowd a reason to to go crazy was when Greivis Vasquez nailed a three to give the Raptors the lead with five minutes to go. The lead wouldn’t last for long, though, as Joe Johnson answered immediately on the other end. And that’s when Brooklyn’s wily ole vets, who had struggled just like most of the team throughout the afternoon, helped seal the game for the Nets with some tremendous crunchtime shot making that remind us that, though their glory days are past, they are still two bad dudes.

Kevin Garnett got things started with a turnaround jumper from the post, and then Paul Pierce, Boston’s closer for so many years, took control. Pierce nailed a three off one of Brooklyn’s most effective actions, a 1/2 screen-and-roll with Williams on the left side of the floor, which forced Toronto’s weakside defenders to slide into the paint for just a second, allowing for Pierce to slide up to the right wing, with Garnett setting a brilliant backscreen on Pierce’s man to get him free. Then Pierce rescued a poor Nets possession by driving into the lane late in the shot clock for a lay-up, though it’s hard to say he didn’t travel. And finally, with Toronto managing just two points over the last three minutes of game action, Pierce drilled a fallaway mid-range jumper off an inbounds pass to put the game away for good.

This was an extremely tough game for the Raptors to lose. Not only did they give up homecourt advantage in this game, but they lost in the most disheartening way possible. The Nets were putrid offensively, not because they ran bad sets, but because they’d get good looks and miss them. They shot 4-of-24 from three in this game and prior to Pierce’s dagger late in the game they had missed 19 three-point attempts in a row. Brooklyn wasn’t a great offensive team this season, but most of their line-ups with Pierce as the smallball four scored at a pretty good rate, so this kind of offensive outing is not something you’d expect from them again going forward.

Meanwhile, the Nets defense was completely locked in all game. They had the Raptors scouted well and their scheme neutered almost all of Toronto’s actions. Their combined length on the perimeter deterred drives and disrupted passes, forcing the Raptors into 17 turnovers while holding them to 39% shooting. The Nets showed on almost all pick-and-rolls, taking away any space for Kyle Lowry to launch from deep while rotating quickly on the outside. Just about the only consistent success that the Raptors had offensively in this one was with Jonas Valanciunas in pick-and-rolls as he was able to make a couple of clean catches on the way to the basket for some good looks.

Other than that, though, the Raptor offense was stagnant and bogged down. Despite playing some line-ups with three shooters spacing the floor around their pick-and-roll, Toronto was still unable to find space because of Brooklyn’s tremendous defensive effort. And, perhaps most importantly, Shaun Livingston submitted a sublime individual defensive effort on DeMar DeRozan, forcing DeRozan into one of his worst shooting games of the season (3-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from deep) and stifling a lot of the sets that the Raptors are used to flowing into to get DeRozan the ball in good spots. Take this play for instance, where Livingston and Pierce prevent DeRozan from getting any momentum off a pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson while Livingston recovers, sticks right on the hip of DeRozan and forces him into a bad shot.

Plays where DeRozan was able to get free from Livingston in this game were few and far between, and when Livingston sat with foul trouble, Joe Johnson did an admirable job defending DeRozan. Dwane Casey will have to find ways to get DeRozan the ball in space and with momentum going towards the rim to get him going in this series, because the Nets’ pick-and-roll coverages prevent him from turning the corner off a screen, and he’s been unable to get by his man in one-on-one situations. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s entirely possible than the potential laden DeRozan simply needs another off-season to develop the kind of one-on-one maneuvers necessary to beat the tight defense he’s going to see in the post-season over the next decade.

The Raptors were OK themselves defensively, but the numbers would have looked much worse had the Nets made even half of the many good looks from deep that they got in this game. Toronto has to be much smarter with their double teams for the rest of the series, whether that means coming earlier, changing up where the help comes from throughout the game or simply trying to let Lowry, DeRozan or Ross defend in the post one-on-one, because Johnson feasted on their second and third rotations in this game when they came to double him in the post.

This was an extremely disheartening loss for the Raptors. The fans were pumped to have the post-season back in their city and the Nets played very poorly offensively for the majority of this game, opening the door for the Raptors to start the series off on a good note. But the Raptors just couldn’t capitalize. Brooklyn’s strong, smart defensive effort kept them from every establishing rhythm and Pierce’s late-game heroics fossilized them for good.

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It’s difficult to tell if the Warriors are going to make this a series or if the atrocious officiating, which hurt both sides in this game, muddied things up so much that there’s nothing to take away from this one other than that Mark Jackson really had his troops ready to play. Blake Griffin played 19 minutes in this game because of foul trouble, Andre Iguodala fouled out in the fourth quarter after picking up four in the first half, Chris Paul had to spend more time than usual on the bench because of a few ticky tack calls and David Lee had an early hook because of some quick whistles. Rarely did both teams have their best units on the floor – and, of course, Golden State never will because of the injury to Andrew Bogut – and during the rare stints when Griffin and Iguodala were able to be on the floor, they were tentative because of how poorly the officials were calling the game.

It’s possible that Blake’s early exit threw everything out of whack for the Clippers, who have come to rely on him more than ever this season, and it’s certainly true that the Warriors can more easily find a replacement for Iguodala than the Clippers can for Griffin. If foul trouble doesn’t play a major role in game two, then the Clippers may win handily against a Warrior team that is missing its defensive centerpiece.

But then again, the Warriors showed something in this game that is almost assuredly going to continue to cause problems for Los Angeles no matter who is on the floor for them: Mark Jackson is willing to go small again, and the Warriors play extremely well on both ends of the floor when Draymond Green is inserted at the power forward spot. The Warriors were insane defensively when Green was on the floor, limiting the Clippers to 78.5 points per 100 possessions during his 22 minutes. Even Harrison Barnes was great when he was asked to play power forward, and he had the play of the game in the fourth quarter when he blocked Chris Paul’s lay-up attempt in transition with two minutes to go before getting back on the other end and drilling a three that put Golden State up by two.

What’s even more troubling for the Clippers is that the Warriors destroyed their defense even when it was Lee and Jermaine O’Neal sharing the floor, as Lee’s expert passing in the paint helped lead to numerous defensive breakdowns of the Clippers. In the first half DeAndre Jordan was doing an adequate job protecting the rim, racking up five blocked shots, but in the second half he was nowhere to be found, sucked in often by dribble penetration with nobody else on the backline there to help the helper. Again, it’s tough to evaluate the Clippers’ overall performance because of how little Blake played, and putting Glen Davis on the floor for any length of time will lead to some defensive issues, but the Clippers had no rim protection in the second half and they got slaughtered on the boards, allowing 15 offensive rebounds for the game.

Blake is obviously one way for Doc Rivers to counter Golden State’s smallball attack as he can get him on the block and have him attack Green downlow, but another flaw emerged in this game for the Clippers, and it’s one that could wind up being fatal for the Clippers if they don’t adjust: They can’t guard Stephen Curry on high pick-and-rolls.

Curry is an offense all unto himself. A simple screen-and-roll with him up top can result in countless breakdowns for the opposition, whether it’s someone slipping up and giving an inch of space to launch a three or the backline rotations not being quick enough to recover for the big man that had to come up to prevent Curry from stepping into a shot. The Clippers chose to trap Curry on his high screen-and-rolls, and with Lee being such a great passer and decision maker on the move, the Warriors were comfortable using the pick-and-roll as an invitation to bring a Clipper big away from the rim. Curry would wait until the perfect time to hit Lee on the roll, allowing for Jordan or Griffin or Davis to come out far enough to make it difficult for them to scurry back into the paint. The result was driving lanes for Lee, who was able to get a few buckets at the rim and find shooters on the weakside as the Clippers were forced to breakdown to protect the paint.

Take a look at a sampling of Golden State’s tremendous ball movement against the trap in this one. And remember, all of this happens because the Clippers are frightened by the idea of Curry coming off one of those picks and launching a three-point attempt.

Los Angeles will have to change things up going into game two. All season long they’ve had Jordan and Griffin become comfortable sagging back on pick-and-rolls on their ICE coverage, but in this one they decided to come out and be aggressive to keep Curry from beating them. Well, even though it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, having their bigs play a little further back and forcing Curry to beat them without getting others involved may be an optimal strategy, or at least one worth trying after their original plan was torched in game one.

The Clippers should be fine on the other end. Paul was brilliant in this game despite his late free throw misses and six turnovers and J.J. Redick was on fire from deep. If they can get Jamal Crawford’s game out of the gutter and a full performance from Blake, they have to like their chances going forward. That said, the Warriors took the fight to them in this game and Curry showed that even when he’s not lighting up the scoreboard himself, he can still have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

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Before this series, it seemed radical to suggest that the #1 seeded Pacers may have to take the player that they’ve built their entire, incredibly successful, defensive scheme around off the floor because of how he matched up with the 8th seeded Hawks, who finished the season six games under .500, but you can’t argue with it after game one. Whether it was by directly involving him in a pick-and-roll or having him hang around the perimeter to guard a spot-up shooter, the Hawks exploited their schematic advantage time and time again, running pick-and-pops with the floor spaced with shooters, putting the Pacers at odds with their principles.

Indiana wants to clog the paint and keep ball handlers out of the middle of the floor, but against the Hawks starting five, there is no weak link to sag off of to help pack the paint, and the usually statuesque Hibbert is required to leave his comfort zone to guard Atlanta’s stretch bigs. At first, the Pacers stuck to their gameplan and let the Hawks bigs get some open looks on pick-and-pops, but as the game wore on and they started drifting further and further out to guard the shooters, Jeff Teague began ripping apart their interior defense, routinely blowing by George Hill, who had no help on the backline thanks to Atlanta’s floor spacing bigs.

Just look at how much space there is behind the initial defender and how beautifully Teague goes about getting by his man to get into the wide open lane.

Teague was excellent, putting up 28 points and five assists, and the Hawks also got a huge game out of Paul Millsap. When the pick-and-roll game stalls for Altanta, Millsap is the one player that the Hawks can count on to get something going on his own, and he wound up with 25 points and eight boards for Altanta, in addition to hitting a pair of threes. And though Kyle Korver had an off night by his standards, the Hawks got him some really clean looks off some pretty pindown and curl screen plays, and they’re likely to be there again in game two. Picking up the slack for Korver was DeMarre Carroll, who played a hell of a game, scoring 12 points, pulling down 10 boards (five offensive), hitting a couple of threes and playing some really good defense on Paul George.

The worst part about this game for the Pacers wasn’t necessarily that they lost, it’s that they got down by 20 at one point in the fourth quarter and the team started slumping its collective shoulders like we saw many times during their tumultuous stretch to close out the regular season. Coming into the game the team preached about having a clean slate in the post-season, but they showed the same signs of losing faith in each other when things got tough in this one.

And let’s be honest here, Indiana’s struggles don’t have everything to do with attitude. It plays a part, but the real issue here is that the Pacers just can’t score the basketball efficiently, and despite solid games from George and Lance Stephenson in this one, there’s just nothing else there aside from the occasional C.J. Watson outburst. George Hill is better suited for a utility role like the one he filled for the Spurs, not as the creator for an offense that doesn’t have any space, David West struggled with foul trouble and never got going, Luis Scola was 0-of-6 from the field and Hibbert has always been an average offensive player at best unless he’s got a colossal size advantage.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude finally caught up to them when their defense slipped even the slightest bit, and against a team like Atlanta that further minimizes the impact of Indiana’s usually stellar defensive scheme, the Pacers are in big trouble now that they’ve surrendered homecourt advantage, something I’m sure can only damage what was already a deteriorating team psyche.

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You have to credit the Grizzlies for fighting their way back into a game that they trailed by 25 in during the first half. Memphis didn’t even make a shot outside of the paint for the first 23 minutes and 59 seconds of this game, finally getting a three to go at the halftime buzzer. The came out strong in the third against a Thunder team that clearly thought they had closed the coffin on them in the first half, putting together a 31-13 run that made it a game going into the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies even cut Oklahoma City’s lead to two in the fourth when Mike Miller hit a three with 8:45 to go in regulation, but that shot was just about all the Grizzlies had left in the tank. They wouldn’t score another field goal over the next three mintues of game time, allowing the Thunder to go on a 13-1 run that put the game out of reach for good.

Most of the credit for Memphis strong third quarter effort has to go to Tony Allen. He held Durant to 5-of-14 shooting, allowing just 13 points compared to the 20 points Durant dropped on his teammates on 73% shooting. His activity off the ball often prevented Durant from even getting a touch, a familiar sight after seeing Allen do this to Durant twice over the past two post-seasons, and he created turnovers that led to easy buckets for the Grizzlies on the break, which was huge for a team that struggled to create good looks in the halfcourt all game long

Even though Memphis made up some ground in this one, it still feels like the gap in talent between these two teams is too large. The Grizzlies just have no space offensively, and it’s just something have to accept because Allen, who, despite a decent shooting outing in this game, remains an impotent outside threat, is their only defender that can slow down Durant. I’m sure Conley will rebound after his poor shooting performance in this one, but the Thunder also have the length and athleticism to throw at Conley all game long and there help defenders can be aggressive in digging down on him when he drives, too. If there’s any hope for the Grizzlies in this series, they’ll need Allen to replicate those same results each and every night and hope that Conley and Marc Gasol can work enough magic in the two man game to create any kind of rhythm for their offense.

But right now, I wouldn’t bet on that happening.

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