Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals is what I love most about the NBA playoffs.
Each professional sport has its own playoff nuances. Football has its one-and-done finality, hockey has its agonizing sudden death overtime periods, and baseball has its one-on-one approach where every single pitch can decide the game. In basketball though, this is the only playoff series where there are a myriad of actions and reactions, causes and effects, and game-to-game adjustments that can swing the series momentum from one team to the other. It isn't some random thing when LeBron says that he's going to go to his left hand until the Pacers stop it, and then he will switch back to his right hand. Adjustment, adjustment-to-adjustment, followed by adjustment-to-adjustment-to-adjustment. It is an X and O fan's dream played out in real time by the greatest athletes in the world.
The Indiana Pacers were blown out in their own arena in Game 3 as LeBron James performed open heart surgery on Indy's interior defense through his passing and scoring. The Heat looked unstoppable and the Pacers looked like they had given up. As we shifted to Game 4, the question was, is there ANY way to stop LeBron from steamrolling the Pacers again and moving his Heat team to the brink of the Finals? Would the Heat simply continue to do what they liked to the suddenly lost Pacers defense?
As it turned out, the rumors of the Pacers' demise was sorely exaggerated. Indy made some outstanding post defense adjustments, and what once looked like it would be a Heat gentleman's sweep suddenly turned into a playoff battle that will see at the very least a Game 6. How could a team that looked so offensively dominant in game 3 (70 points at the half) have their offense neutered so dramatically that they had the same point total at the start of the 4th in Game 4? How could the Miami offense, which dumped 52 points in the paint in Game 3, see that total drop by 20?
The answer? Game adjustments. The Pacers made them because they had to; the Heat did not because they did not need to. The result was a Game 4 that was every bit as tense as Games 1 and 2 and puts us at 2-2 heading into Game 5.
From my perch, the biggest Pacers adjustments came on the defensive end, where Indiana notably had to start double-teaming James much more aggressively to prevent him from his easy spins to the baseline to bank in his shots. He's been going to this baseline jump-hook repeatedly, but has rarely spun back to the middle, most likely because Roy Hibbert would be waiting for him. When the Pacers started to bring those double-teams to James, he lost his angles and his jump-hook fell apart. The Pacers did a great job with the timing of their doubles, which matters much more than who is doing the doubling. The purpose is not even necessarily to get James to give up the ball, but to compel him to shoot a shot that is sub-optimal. If James rotated the ball quickly enough, the Heat might have been able to spring their 3-point shooters to some better looks. Instead, they once again struggled to an 8-23 night from beyond the arc, not damaging enough to harm the Pacers' defense. Instead, James went to the fadeaway jumper, which is his least-effective shot in the arsenal and keeps him off of the offensive glass. As a result, James shot only 8-18, went to the free throw line 6 times, and tallied only 5 assists.
On the opposite end of the court, the Pacers figured out a way to reduce the Heat defense's jamming of the high pick and roll, which limited Hibbert to a 4-12 shooting night in Game 3, while forcing Paul George into 5 turnovers. In Game 4, the Pacers used some reverse pick and roll action on the strong side in order to free up Hibbert on the weak side. Using this decoy action, the middle man is pulled out of his defensive fronting position and Hibbert can receive the ball cleanly with plenty of space to work. Grantland's Zach Lowe writes:
The Pacers have gradually figured out how to get Hibbert the ball, and how to attack both Miami’s fronts and its hyper-aggressive trapping on pick-and-rolls.
"This team [Miami] is predicated on loading up the strong side," George said. "So for us to attack them, we’ve gotta hit them from the weak side. It’s about us moving the ball and finding Roy where he can really get post position."
"It’s about swinging it from one side to the other and then entering it," Hibbert told me after the game. "Swing it and enter. Just keep the ball moving and hot potato it."
Lowe also writes that Hibbert is, "Balling the hell out," which is a great turn of phrase and I plan on stealing it frequently. It is true though - Hibbert is the one guy on the Pacers' team that Miami cannot account for, so it is mandatory for Indy's chances that they put Hibbert in a position to score as often as possible.
The Pacers' Game 4 adjustments were brilliant and Indy has now defeated at Heat team that won 66 games (including 27 in a row) 4 times this year. Their ability to limit James while not giving in to the Heat's shooters is key and the result is that Indy has held the Heat to under 100 points in each of those wins.
And yet...this is the awesome part...
In Game 5, Miami will make their own adjustments. They will find their own way to get James open on the low block, they will figure out the spacing they need to get Ray Allen and Shane Battier free, and they will figure out a way to dent the Pacers' massive rebounding advantage. Remember, as great and consistent as the Pacers looked in Game 4, they were always a Heat run away from watching it unravel in a matter of seconds. The Heat will be waiting to pounce in Game 5 whenever the Pacers let down their energy and concentration.
And it will only take a few simple adjustments.
Playoff basketball. It's mind melting.
Note: According to one of the Smartest Guys in the Room Tim Donahue of 8 Points, 9 Seconds, that fainting woman is none other than Sarah Simon, the daughter of Pacers owner Herb Simon. Sarah owned up to the moment on Facebook by simply saying, "I love Lance."
Gif via @HeyBelinda