Here's the Indiana Pacers' first possession of the second half of Game 5 against the Miami Heat on Thursday:
It goes pretty well, right?
Lance Stephenson brings the ball up the court and kicks to David West on the left wing. George Hill flashes to the free-throw line before bringing Mario Chalmers over to the left corner. Paul George cuts middle from the right wing, sending Dwyane Wade into a nicely timed screen by Roy Hibbert; after West makes his pass to the paint, Udonis Haslem slides to trap George on the catch, which leaves Hibbert all alone to roll to the rim. George reverse-pivots and dishes, Hibbert catches, shrugs off LeBron James and Haslem jumping on his back, and dunks to extend the Pacers' lead. Nice spacing, nice cuts, nice timing, nice passing, nice execution, two points. Good work, everyone.
Things didn't go so hot from there. The Pacers made two shots over the next 11 minutes and 42 seconds — a tough unassisted 18-foot turnaround by West at the 9:17 mark and a tough unassisted 16-footer by George off a deflection at the 5:53 mark. That's it — three field goals in 14 attempts, one assist in the quarter, a 19-point swing (from a six-point lead after Hibbert's dunk to a 13-point deficit entering the fourth quarter) in the space of that 11:42.
Obviously, LeBron James deserves an awful lot of credit for that swing, considering he scored 16 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished four assists and outscored the Pacers by himself in the third quarter. But the wheels clearly came off Indy's offensive wagon in a pretty major way, too. What the heck happened? Let's take a look at a few key problems:
• Hill picked up three fouls in three minutes, then sat for the next five-plus minutes with four fouls, leaving the Pacers (basically) without a point guard.
As we saw when a concussion sidelined him for Game 5 of the Pacers' second-round series with the New York Knicks, when Hill's not available to initiate the Pacers' offense, Indiana struggles mightily to get into its sets. Those difficulties cropped up time and again after Hill caught three quick ones in the third quarter, the last of which was a charging call with 6:58 left in the third and the Pacers leading 51-49.
After shooting a technical free throw that followed some back-and-forth among Haslem, Chalmers and West, Hill went to the bench, replaced by backup point guard D.J. Augustin, who has had some moments as a spot-up shooter in this postseason but is, by and large, the kind of undersized, shaky-handled unthreatening facilitator that Miami's big, long-armed, swarming defense can eat up.
Right away, you started to see the problems, as Augustin rejects a high screen from West to drive on Chalmers only to find himself unable to turn the corner, thanks in part to well-timed help from Haslem:
Now penned in by Haslem and Chalmers, with three Heat players between the ball and George (and no angle to find him in the left corner), James splitting the difference on the backside on the way to Stephenson (and ditto about the angle), and Bosh between the ball and West on the play side, Augustin's only play was to shovel the ball to Hibbert for a catch-and-shoot foul-line jumper. That's something he can hit — he didn't here — but it's also something Miami doesn't much mind giving up at all.
On the next possession, the Pacers took the ball out of Augustin's hands but still wound up with a turnover (more on that in a bit); on the one after that, Augustin dribbled the ball out of bounds off his own foot. Augustin's sole contributions during his roughly seven minutes of third quarter play: one turnover, one missed 3-pointer, one personal foul and multiple reminders that while five years and $40 million seems like a lot for George Hill, it's important to consider the alternatives.
• It can be hard to beat good ball pressure, aggressive fronting and smart back-side help.
Given Augustin's struggles with the size and length of Miami's defenders, Vogel chose to initiate more actions using giant wing George as an entry passer and ball-handler in the pick-and-roll game. This is smart, because while the league's Most Improved Player can be a bit loose with the ball himself at times, he's also a capable initiator who can see over taller defenders and find better angles for passes; also, more generally, there's probably a higher likelihood of something good happening for Indiana when Paul George has the ball than when D.J. Augustin does.
That said, even very tall, very good passers with good vision will struggle to make something happen if Miami's on its half-court game:
Haslem works his butt off to front Hibbert on the left block (which happened a lot on Thursday) and long-armed Bosh is lurking under the basket ready to double and disrupt if George tries to loft the pass into Hibbert. When West cuts across the lane toward the ball to the left elbow, Bosh steps up to deny a potential pressure-relieving pass; just as importantly, Wade now sinks into the paint off Stephenson in the corner, taking Bosh's place as a prospective lob entry pass disruptor.
Hibbert steps off the block to present a screen for George, who initially denies it to dribble right against James' on-ball defense before coming back to his left for a second screen. The action works well — with James high-side denying the middle and Haslem where Hibbert used to be before screening and popping, George has a passing angle, and makes a good bounce feed to a rolling Hibbert. With less than three seconds left on the shot clock, though, Hibbert's only play is to attack the basket, where he finds Bosh waiting to accept the charge and force an Indiana turnover.
It doesn't end with a volleyball spike into the stands, but that possession — the combination of James' tight pressure at the point of attack, disciplined shading within the scheme by Bosh and Wade to make entry passes extremely difficult, and an understanding of how to string an offense out into the late-shot-clock doldrums show what can make this Heat defense so tough when it's operating well.
That ticking shot clock is a huge element for an offense, like Indiana's, without many explosive individual offensive options that relies on execution to score, and for a defense, like Miami's, that thrives when forcing an opponent to go into second, third and fourth options, as Heat.com's Couper Moorhead notes:
It’s tough to understate the effect a short clock has on an NBA offense. While the HEAT were remarkably efficient with less than four seconds on the shot clock (according to Synergy Sports) the average team scored fewer points per possession than, say, an average jump shooter taking long two-pointers off the dribble in isolation sets. For every 100 possessions that went deep into the clock, the Pacers — with over 1000 such possessions — scored about 73 points. Extrapolate that over an entire season, and that is easily the worst offense of all time.
In Game 5, exactly a quarter of Indiana’s 81 possessions went at least 20 seconds into the clock. They still scored on a fair number of them, but for the most part the result was a rushed, contested shot. Six of those short-clock possessions came in the third quarter, and the Pacers scored 13 points.
• They did selectively bring doubles and traps to corral the ball.
The Heat do like trapping pick-and-rolls and they do like to try to force turnovers to stunt opposing offenses and get their own athletes out in transition, but Erik Spoelstra doesn't tend to love double-teaming, preferring to rely on his individual defenders' length, smarts, positioning, talents and execution of the team defensive scheme rather than send extra help in one spot only to see a more dangerous threat open up one or two passes away. (This is part of why Hibbert's had such a field day in the early games of the series despite his size and advantage on the offensive glass very evidently being the primary thing hurting Miami.)
He's not averse to taking advantage of situations, though, and with Indiana unable to trigger its own stuff, momentum moving in Miami's direction and things feeling like they were about to blow up, you saw the Heat's defenders decide on a couple of occasions to go more diligently after the ball to prompt a turnover and dispirit the Indy offense, like so:
Haslem sees George curling around Hibbert's screen and leaps out to greet him, giving Ray Allen (who's been surprisingly effective on George in this series) a chance to catch up from trailing position and hem George in. George is able to pivot off the catch and swing the ball to Stephenson, who sort of do-si-do'd his way around the screen Hibbert had set and backed into the corner. As soon as Stephenson catches, he is greeted by LeBron James directly in his mug, which must be fun.
Stephenson passes over the top to Hibbert, who's been picked up by Bosh, and a recovering Haslem races back to check his initial mark and double the ball in the post. Because James is now directly in front of the play, Stephenson shuffles off to the wing in the hope of drawing LeBron away from a potential triple-team on the ball, but Hibbert still finds himself trapped in front of his own bench, unable to do anything but dribble toward the corner with two Heat defenders on his back, and must call timeout.
The Pacers then had to inbound from the sideline against a set Heat half-court defense and try to make something happen with eight seconds on the shot clock. They didn't — Ian Mahinmi was stripped attempting a layup off a roll to the rim, with Miami taking possession. The official play-by-play doesn't list it as one of the five Pacer turnovers that led to nine Miami points in the quarter, but on the change of possession, Haslem got one of his patented baseline jumpers to push Miami's lead to double-digits.
• Guys missed shots.
It's not the sexiest bit of analysis, I'll grant, but hey, it's reality. Hibbert missed a little drop-step right-handed hook in the lane — not a gimme, but they kind of shot he's been making throughout the series — just inside the 10-minute mark. West missed a pick-and-pop midrange jumper from just off the left baseline with three minutes left, and George missed a transition layup 15 seconds after that. Augustin missed a corner 3-pointer with one minute remaining. (We won't count Stephenson's two misses, because Lance was nowhere near hitting anything for most of last night.)
That's four important possessions in a quarter gone bad — four potential buckets that would've either extended a Pacer lead, kept the game within two possessions or cut the lead to less than 10; four chances to stem the tide and give Indy room to breathe amid all that Heat pressure. Indiana went 0 for 4, which is just one of many reasons that things got away from them in Thursday's third stanza.
The Pacers will need a number of things to get back to even-par against Miami in Saturday's Game 6 and extend their season — a little more shot-making sure wouldn't hurt.