Monday, June 3, 2013

Once More, With Feeling

Can Paul George lead Indiana to the Finals?

By Jeremy Conlin

Let’s not even bother with an introduction. You know what the deal is. Game 7. Tonight. For all the tea in China.

The key to Miami’s offense: Force Roy Hibbert to defend in space

Yeah, way easier said than done. I realize that. But Miami has been able to do it at times in the series in a number of different ways, so it’s definitely possible for them to come up with a gameplan that combines some of these elements:

1. The Birdman Fly-In.

You can’t even call it a duck-in (even though, yes, a duck is a bird) because of how far away Chris Anderson will be lining up for these dives to the rim. A “duck-in” usually involves a big man hanging around the edge of the paint waiting for a driver to suck in the defense, then the big man cuts to the front of the rim for a catch and easy finish. With Birdman, he’s lining up almost 15-16 feet from the basket.

LeBron will catch a high screen going to his right while Anderson sets up on the left baseline. When LeBron makes his move into the paint, Hibbert all of a sudden has more ground to cover to commit to LeBron’s attack. If he doesn’t move quickly enough, LeBron has a clear path to the basket. If he moves too quickly, Birdman cuts right behind him and is in position for an easy catch and finish.

Indiana has done a good job cutting off the initial action here – they’ve been trapping harder on the high screen, forcing LeBron to give up the ball, or at the very least, disrupting the timing so that LeBron doesn’t have a full head of steam when he enters the paint. Miami can adjust by having the screener be a guard, making it easier for LeBron to muscle his way into the lane, or by attacking the trap by quickly reversing the ball for a weakside three.

2. The LeBron/Bosh curl

The Heat got a lot of easy looks out of this set earlier in the series but haven’t really returned to it. It involves Bosh and LeBron standing together on the left baseline, and LeBron curling around Bosh’s screen and cutting towards the elbow. If Bosh’s man (works best if it’s Hibbert) doesn’t help, LeBron ends up with a layup. If he does help, Bosh is left alone for a wide-open jumper.

The Pacers never really developed a counter for it, so it’s unclear why the Heat stopped running it. They should probably give it another look tonight.

3. Face-up Bosh from mid-range

This seems pretty simple, but it’s something that we haven’t seen yet and I’m not sure why. Granted, with Bosh’s ankle tweak it might not be as effective as I’m assuming, but if the goal is to make Hibbert guard in space, why wouldn’t you isolate Bosh and force Hibbert to defend him off the dribble? Bosh has been deadly all season attacking slower defenders on drives to the basket, and if they sag off him too much, he can knock down a sweet jumper right in their mug. Bosh has largely been a non-factor in the series, but it might just be because they haven’t tried hard enough to find him good looks.

The key to Indiana’s offense: Be bigger than Miami

This one isn’t easier said than done, but it is rather simple and reductive. I’m okay with that.

Indiana has a +61 advantage on the boards in this series. In six games. That’s pretty ridiculous. They have 82 offensive rebounds from their 233 missed shots in the series. That’s 35.2 percent. If they sustained that number over the full season, it would have led the league by a margin so big that the 2nd-place team (Denver – 31.4%) would be closer to 12th than to 1st.

Miami’s defensive scheme is one that surrenders a fair amount of offensive rebounds – they were just 24th in the league in Defensive Rebound Rate this season. Their philosophy is that forcing bad shots is more important than crashing the defensive glass, and they may be right – the range between the best defensive rebounding team (Golden State) and the worst (Sacramento) is rebound just 4.5 percent more of missed shots. Conversely, the range between stingiest shot defense this year (Indiana) and the worst (Charlotte) is 7.1 percentage points of Effective Field Goal Percentage (which weighs 3-point shots accordingly). In other words, Miami places a higher priority on defending shots than on rebounding misses because the margin for error is greater in defensive rebounding.

As a result, Miami’s scheme pulls Chris Bosh away from the hoop to use his quickness to hedge and trap ball-screens. They place a premium on shutting down the initial action and relying on guys like LeBron and Wade to crash the boards. But against Indiana, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, it comes back to bite them. Hibbert has absolutely killed them on the offensive glass, regardless of where Chris Bosh is on the floor. He has 33 offensive rebounds in six games, and David West has added 19 of his own. Their prowess on the glass is leading to an improved offense in almost every facet – their rebounding sets up more easy looks around the basket, and it also leads to better looks at three-point shots against a scrambling Miami defense.

In this sense – Indiana might actually have the tactical advantage headed into Game 7. They know that they don’t really have to make any substantial adjustments – they just have to play the same style they’ve been playing, and if the ball bounces their way on the offensive backboard, they can punish Miami inside and win.

For the series, Miami has an offensive efficiency of 111.6, not that far off their regular season number of 112.3. However, Indiana’s offensive efficiency of 110.6 is well above their regular season number of 104.3. Now, this raises an interesting question – is the fact that Indiana’s offense has been so much better in this series than it’s been at any other point in this series and indicator that they’re likely to regress (like they did in Game 5), or is it that this specific matchup with Miami allows them a level of efficiency that nobody saw coming?

Neither team has really been able to effectively guard the other, at least based on how the two teams played defense in the regular season. Indiana is the better defensive team, so one might think they’d be better able to step up on defense in Game 7. However, Indiana is also worse offensively, so one might think Miami will be able to step up and slow Indiana’s rather predictable offense.

There really isn’t any use picking a winner – the teams are effectively even (with Bosh and Wade hobbled like they are, you might even argue Indiana is more talented top-to-bottom), and home-court advantage hasn’t mattered much in the series (both teams have won on the road). Game 7s are usually won by the home team at a frequency much higher than a normal home playoff game, so that would seem to give Miami the edge. But picking them to win wouldn’t be rooted in much basketball – it would be mostly baseless speculation about how well Miami will adjust and a historical trend toward home teams winning Game 7s.

All I know is that it’ll be fun.