Beauty of 'ugly' hoops? Pacers now on brink of Finals

Monday, June 3, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS --Pacers center Roy Hibbert isn't always locked in away from the basketball court, but when he's patrolling the paint he is something of a savant.

At 7-foot-2 (at least), he would be an imposing presence no matter how smart he plays. He looks a bit clumsy and he doesn't block many shots, but his impact on the court has helped Indiana take the Heat out of their game and put the Pacers one game away from the NBA Finals.

Miami's offense is based on having its three highly-talented, highly-paid players (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) set screens for each other, then drive to the rim for layups or pass it out to the cheaply-paid three-point shooters standing statically in the corner.

Those shooters -- Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, et al. -- are really quite phenomenal, and shooting open threes from the corner are the most efficient offensive play in the NBA.

(Those shots are closer to the basket than "above-the-break" three-pointers, which means they're easier to make. Also, because there is no backboard in the way, the rebounds are more unpredictable and therefore are more likely to be pulled in by an offensive player. Even if they miss, they give the offense a better chance to score.)

When Miami's offense is operating properly, it's beautiful, musical and rhythmic.

Indiana won't let that offense operate properly, which makes it ugly, dissonant and tone-deaf.

The reason it doesn't work is that Hibbert prowling in the paint makes the Heat's players freak out.

The Pacers defense is based upon the assumption that if teams can't make layups or shoot threes from the corner, they probably won't score very well.

Basically, they're trying to do the opposite of what Miami is trying to do, and it's been fairly successful and that's whey they're tied and one game from reaching the Finals.

The perimeter defenders (Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill) do this by working hard on the perimeter and staying close to their man, daring him to drive and get met by Hibbert in the paint.

Miami's ball-handlers (James, Wade and Chalmers) then have the choice of either passing the ball around the perimeter, shooting with a hand in their face or trying to drive, which they know will make them freak out and embarrass themselves.

Indiana's perimeter defenders are quite good, but nobody can stop James from getting to the basket when he wants to. Somehow though, without blocking shots, Hibbert can stop him once he gets there.

They see Hibbert, then they jump, then they whip the ball at unsuspecting teammates at 80 m.p.h.

Since the Heat want to drive, they also want to create space near the basket. Instead of having a center (Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Birdman Andersen) post up, they have him get out of the way.

Bosh can make threes, so he either sets screens or stands in the corner. Haslem and Andersen can't make threes, so they stay 15-18 feet from the basket on the baseline.

This draws Hibbert out of the paint and makes the Heat think they can score. But when Hibbert hustles back to play help defense, the Heat don't react very well.

The only way it works is if Hibbert waits until the last minute to come help, so he has to work extremely hard as he runs back-and-forth from his assignment to the paint.

But when he does that, everything else is easy. The Heat offense is tough to stop because they're talented, but it's also predictable. It's so predictable that power forwards David West and Tyler Hansbrough don't have to do anything on defense except stand in the corner and "guard" a shooter.

When Miami has the ball, it is basically playing three-on-four. And when you are just watching the ball, things get ugly. It's like marveling at the ugliness of the most prominent tree in the middle of a beautiful forest.

But when you step back and see the Pacers fighting to get around screens and see Hibbert jetting from his assignment, into the paint and then back, you can see the beauty in their energetic defense.

The Pacers take Miami's color-by-numbers art project and dump a big bucket of gold paint on it. If the Heat don't do something abstract, it might get Indiana into the Finals.

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