MIAMI — Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel has called Roy Hibbert “the best rim protector in the game.” That same Vogel took that same Hibbert off the floor on two critical defensive possessions late in overtime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday.
The result? Two LeBron James layups and a 103-102 Miami Heat victory in overtime. Commence the torching of Vogel.
Vogel is very good at his job, the architect of the No. 1 defense in the league. But on more than one occasion in these playoffs, he has been caught over-coaching. This isn’t the first time he’s sat Hibbert on a late-game defensive possession, but it’s the time that decision came back to really bite him in the rear end.
Indiana was in position to steal Game 1 and home-court advantage in the series. Paul George got them to overtime with a 32-foot bomb at the end of regulation and, after James’ first Hibbert-less layup, got them a one-point lead with three clutch free throws with 2.2 seconds on the clock in OT.
After the Heat called timeout, Hibbert was on the floor.
I repeat, Hibbert was on the floor. And it was just one possession earlier when James beat George Hill off the dribble and got a layup because Hibbert wasn’t on the floor.
But Vogel looked at Miami’s lineup and called his own timeout, for the sole purpose of replacing Hibbert with Tyler Hansbrough. Over-coaching 101.
“That’s the dilemma they present when they have Chris Bosh at the five spot and his ability to space the floor,” Vogel said afterward. “We put a switching lineup in with the intent to switch, keep everything in front of us, and try to go into or force a challenged jump shot.”
Vogel’s fear was that, if Hibbert stuck by the basket to protect the rim, Bosh could free up a teammate with a screen or knock down an open jump shot.
The Pacers did switch as the Heat set multiple screens on the inbounds play. But when James caught the ball at the top of the key, George closed out a little too hard. The Heat had the floor spaced well, so when James blew by George, there was no one in position to help or protect the rim. James laid the ball in with his left hand and the buzzer sounded.
Game over. Opportunity lost.
“Obviously, with the way it worked out, it would have been better to have Roy in the game,” Vogel said. “But you don’t know. If that happens, maybe Bosh is making a jump shot and we’re all talking about that.”
And maybe if Hibbert was on the floor and James just scored over him, we’re talking about the Heat’s offensive mentality. After attempting 11 mid-range shots in the first quarter (and only five from the restricted area), they attempted just 13 mid-range shots (and 31 from the restricted area) over the remaining 41 minutes.
They didn’t let Hibbert’s presence keep them away from the rim. They smartly attacked the Pacers’ defense both from the middle and from the baseline, drew Hibbert’s attention, and dumped the ball off to cutters for layups and dunks.
“We’re an attacking team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It takes a great commitment and effort to be able to do it together, to get our attack. So you play a very good defensive team like this, you might not necessarily get it on the first option of your attack. And you have to have the poise and patience to work your offense, get to the proper spacing, move bodies, and have those opportunities in the paint.”
(Someone send that quote to the New York Knicks.)
“The first quarter, it was more of taking the first available look,” Spoelstra continued. “And a lot of times, it was that pull-up or long jumper.”
After averaging just 30.7 points in the paint in three regular season meetings against the Pacers, the Heat had almost twice that (60) on Wednesday. And all of their biggest buckets of the night came at the rim, including a Dwyane Wade layup over Hibbert in the final minute of regulation and a Bosh put-back over Hibbert in the final minute of OT. So it’s not as if Hibbert was stopping everything.
But you have a much better chance of protecting the rim with Hibbert on the floor than with him on the bench. In his 12 minutes off the floor in Game 1, the Heat were 9-for-12 in the restricted area and just 1-for-9 elsewhere. And if the 7-foot-2 guy is in the game and protecting the rim on that final possession, you can certainly live with the elsewhere.
Hibbert was obviously disappointed afterward, but he had his coach’s back.
“I could see why Coach wanted to take me out,” he said. “With 2.2 seconds left on the clock, they can throw it to Bosh and I’m over-committing in the paint and he can hit a jump shot. My mentality is always to protect the rim. I wish I was in there, but I have complete faith in Coach’s decisions.”
If the situation comes up again, the decision might be different.
“I would say we’ll probably have him in the next time,” Vogel said.
The Heat have now won 46 of their last 49 games. Opportunities to beat them do not come often. Vogel can only hope that there is a next time.