In three years as head coach of a rebuilding Indiana Pacers team, Frank Vogel has been a model of consistency and progress. After taking the job 44 games into his first year, he improved the team's winning percentage from .386 to .526--the team made the playoffs for the first time in five years. For each of the following years, Vogel has led his team farther into the postseason, and garnering more praise by the day along the way. Yet after Wednesday night's Game 1 matchup against the Heat, the young coach has received his first taste of true criticism.
Although facing a superior opponent in the Heat, Vogel and his Pacers are regarded as the squad most apt to challenge Miami's attempt to secure back-to-back NBA championships. Along with winning the regular season series, the Pacers possess a vital advantage in this brewing matchup: an overpowering frontcourt. Big men David West and Roy Hibbert have displayed fantastic growth--confirmed in these playoffs--and whether on the offensive side of the ball, on defense, or even in their chemistry with each other in the post. Few teams can match this presence down low, much less Miami, who have chosen the path of flashy, finesse shooters and playmakers, rather than towering, physical centers/forwards. Clearly, going into this year's conference finals, Indiana could severely impede Miami's progress--especially during plays near the basket.
And for the most part on Wednesday night, the Pacers put forth a sublime effort, one that they'll find themselves hard-pressed to replicate. The Heat battled back from a 5-point halftime deficit, and somehow extended the game to overtime. Yet after Paul George's miraculous game-tying three-point heave at the buzzer--cementing him as a superstar in the brightest of spotlights--the message here was obvious: if the Pacers were to snatch that influential "steal" game, and if they were to have any shot at pulling the series upset, securing a victory tonight would be of utmost necessity.
And although the opportunity would certainly not come gift-wrapped heading into the overtime session, it arose for the taking. As the midway point of the overtime period came, the Pacers appeared as the team in control: Miami was missing field goal after field goal and the Pacers were getting plenty of officiating calls their way. From the 2:04 mark to 0:49 seconds left in the game, Indiana retained a three point lead. Twenty-five seconds after the, up until then, non-existent Chris Bosh connected on a layup and a foul, the inexplicable occurred at the 0:24 mark.
The mastermind Frank Vogel, in an effort to apparently combat Miami's smaller lineup, decided to substitute in small forward Sam Young for team leader Roy Hibbert. Young had played less than 10 minutes the whole game, and was clearly not suited for this type of environment and situation. So what happened after Hibbert was held out? LeBron converted on two driving layups to the basket. Without a doubt, had Hibbert been present near the rim it would have completely altered LeBron's decision-making and mindset. Note that even Vogel himself called his prized center the "greatest rim protector", so it seems incomprehensible that he would blatantly disregard his own principles and commit such an egregious coaching gaffe.
Here's where you can give proper due to LeBron James, especially during a scenario that once wreaked of nightmares and chokes before. LeBron did what he should always have been doing his whole career, and what he should continue to do now: utilize his strength--by means of his physical attributes and attack the rim--rather than rely on his weakness in clutch situations--classic, potential game-winning jumpshots. Nevertheless, it's easy to conceive a situation where Hibbert's presence near the basket would deter LeBron from taking the more appropriate course of action (driving to the hoop), forcing him to settle on his all-too-familiar, doomed fallaway jumper.
And if you wish to blame Paul George for dreadful defense on the 4-time MVP, think again. Firstly, George had single-handedly guided his team through the 4th quarter and into the overtime period, and playing 47 minutes (89% of the game), it is perfectly understandable that he would be exhausted. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, he was guarding a 250 lb. unstoppable freight train in LeBron James. NO ONE can guard LeBron one-on-one, particularly when he's in his right mind and driving to the hoop: not even the player who presents the greatest challenge to him, Paul George. To put it in perspective, few players in NBA history mirror LeBron's rare, efficient combination of brute physicality, supreme athleticism, and unmatched explosiveness. Essentially, George naturally believed that he would have one of the best NBA centers, Roy Hibbert, lurking underneath the rim if LeBron's decided to bypass perimeter play and blow by towards the basket. But Vogel, in his decision to take out Hibbert, severely disrupted this unique, natural chemistry that would otherwise have provided crucial support in guarding a physical specimen like LeBron.
What's even more baffling is that Vogel actually sent Hibbert back out on the court at the 0:10 mark, and took him out again at the 0:02 mark. Not only did Vogel use two separate timeouts for his quick switches in dealing with Hibbert, but Vogel made it so his big man was present for the team's offensive plays--while sidelining him for his strongest facet of his game, defense.
Earlier, I predicted--like the far majority of the NBA world--that the Heat would emerge as victors in this series, and in my opinion that it would last the full seven, grueling games. This matchup was bound to be even, and due to Heat's superstar talent, the series seemed destined to go the way of South of Beach. But the Pacers came close to endangering this pick. They had their chance to tilt the series their way, not only by gaining an enormous amount of confidence but by stealing away home-court advantage. Yet Indiana squandered their perfect opportunity, and for once, there's no one else to blame but the Pacers head coach, Frank Vogel.