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4 Thoughts on Pacers’ game 4 loss

It’s almost too depressing to write about how the Pacers performed in game 4, getting pounded from the outset, getting down by as much as 22, and generally not competing on their way to a 102-90 loss that puts them in a 1-3 hole heading back to Indiana. They have now lost 3 in a row and will need to win 3 in a row against the two-time defending champs to make the Finals. Stranger things have happened, but a miracle is basically what they need right now.

Here are four thoughts from the game:

Pacers’ inability to deal with pressure

This is the third year the Heat and the Pacers have met in the playoffs, and yet Indiana still hasn’t figured out a way to deal with Miami’s pressure defense. In game 1, the Pacers were able to dominate their way to a victory because Miami didn’t pressure them, something they immediately corrected in game 2  and produced favorable results. I thought Indiana would adjust to the pressure after game 2, when they blew that 15-point lead, but instead Miami’s traps have gotten into their heads.

The Pacers are clearly afraid of those “touchdown” turnovers David West talks about where throwing the ball away one end leads to an unstoppable LeBron fast break at the other. But this fear has made them tentative every time they pass or catch the ball, leading to the exact type of predictability that has doomed their already-stagnant offense.

The Heat are excellent at trapping the ball handler, and yet the Pacers remain apprehensive of the “hot potato” offense preached by coach Vogel and end up with the ball in one guy’s hands for too long. I’ve lost count of the number of times George Hill and Paul George have been trapped by the double team before throwing away the ball, usually straight to the other team or out of bounds. Even worse was watching the ball getting poked away from Roy Hibbert just about every time he was trying to get into position for a post up. It’s just easy for the Heat to take gambles because they know exactly what the Pacers are going to do every time down the floor.

I also noticed in the last game that Miami was applying a mini-full court press on the Pacer ball handler on every possession. It almost never resulted in a turnover, but what it did was take away 2 or 3 valuable seconds off the shot clock, which the Pacers could not afford given how slow they already are in getting into their offensive sets. This leads into the next observation, which is Frank Vogel’s inability to adjust.

Frank Vogel’s inability to adjust

Vogel took heat for sticking with his lineups in the first two rounds, both of which the Pacers had to come from behind to win. Then of course he was a strategic genius for not abandoning the guys he has relied on all year. Now, his stubbornness is starting to haunt the Pacers again.

Erik Spoelstra has outcoached Vogel by a mile this series because the Heat have adjusted, while the Pacers have not. The Pacers came out of the gate like a raging bull, while the Heat took the punches, observed, and figured them out. It’s been like watching the Mayweather-Maidana fight.

Part of this is on the players as well, but it’s Vogel’s job to see things that need to be adjusted in the game and relaying this to his players. He should have noticed that the full court press was freaking out the Pacers ball handlers on every possession. It put them under immense pressure for the entire game, and yet he never directed more guys to help out in the back court. He put the onus on George Hill and CJ Watson to break out of the traps themselves, while Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert simply stood around in the front court waiting.

There were rare occasions when the Pacers offense was working, but strangely they wouldn’t stick with the same play the next time down the floor. David West gets a great post up basket against a mismatch, but on the next possession he doesn’t even touch the ball. The offensive sets are just too simple for the Heat defense, which is why they break down consistently and end up in a contested one-on-one move.

The rotations have also left a lot to be desired. Luis Scola has had some awful games, but he’s been good the last couple. When the Heat go small and Roy can’t punish them for it, it’s time for the Scola and West duo. Not saying put them there for the whole game, but why not at least give it a try? Scola’s figured out over the course of the series that he doesn’t need to be hitting his mid-range jumpers to be effective. He’s been posting up and getting results (averaged 10 points on 10-14 shooting in the last two games, but only played 13.5 minutes per game).

And while Evan Turner may have been sick with strep throat, he needs more minutes. I know, I know, but hear me out. Turner’s awfulness has been well documented, but at this point there’s nothing to lose in rolling the dice. Turner helped the Pacers get a win against the Heat in the regular season, and he’s one of a few players on the Pacers roster who can create his own shot and handle the ball. These are the types of guys that give the Heat problems. He might suck on the defensive end, but it’s not like Rasual Butler has been shutting anyone down (I just remember a lot of stupid fouls).

Then there’s Chris Copeland, the NBA version of the booty call. When you see Cope on the floor you know it’s a blowout one way or the other, or the Pacers need a single shot coming out of a timeout. That’s it. He’s been good spirited (as far as well can tell) about it all, but man, Frank has been a total dick to him all year. His defense is not worse than Scola’s, and he can stretch the floor. Again, not saying he should be playing 15-20 minutes, but at least give the poor man a shot at making a difference.

Vogel has been adamant that his guys need to keep playing within the system, meaning making the right pass and getting the right shot. But the problem is, the system has not worked for three straight games. These guys are not the Spurs. What it has done instead is made players focus too much on executing the set play at the offensive end, making them forget about all the other stuff like hustling for the loose ball, pounding the offensive glass and getting back on transition. It takes away their instincts and the raw emotion you need to beat the more talented team (well, or just LeBron) in a series. At some stage you just have to say f*#k it, forget about everything and just go play.

Lance’s comments (and his play)

So Lance Stephenson opened his mouth again. Big deal. That’s what he does. If LeBron had a bad game then Lance would have been labeled a genius. But LeBron had a great game and suddenly Lance is the scapegoat. News flash: it’s the Eastern Conference Finals and LeBron’s trying to cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats. Lance Stephenson’s trash talking is not going to give him any more motivation.

The focus should remain where it should be, which is on Lance’s play. With Paul George being locked down, Lance is the most important offensive player for the Pacers in the series. He’s been one of the only guys on the team who has consistently played with energy and effort. He’s their most effective option on the pick and roll. He can bulldoze smaller guys and even post up LeBron. The focus should be on him doing more of that, not what he’s saying when baited by the media.

Crying foul about the fouls

Much of the post-game attention has been on the Pacers whining about the free throw discrepancy and bad officiating. And let’s be honest: it was awful. I’m not talking about the 34-17 disparity in FTA or the 27-17 gap in total fouls called. It was the whole package of missed calls at one end (even when the slaps were audible on the telecast) and phantom calls at the other, the missed flops and all the missed travel calls. And so many of them were momentum-shifting or at crucial points of the game. You really can’t make a statement about the officiating by just looking at the stat sheet — you need to watch the game.

BUT — there is no conspiracy here. It’s just a bit of bad luck and the usual home-bias that comes with all officiating. The Pacers have had their share of favorable calls as well throughout the playoffs, including in game 1. It’s frustrating when key guys get taken out early due to foul trouble in consecutive games from bad calls, but the best way to avoid these things is just to be smarter on defense. Besides, they were playing so poorly and getting outplayed so thoroughly that I doubt it would have made a difference had the game been called evenly.

The Heat were also smart in attacking Pacers players in foul trouble, while the Pacers did not do the same thing at the other end. When LeBron picked up his second foul in the second quarter I thought the Pacers would go right at him to draw the third, but they backed right off him instead.

In any case, it just looks bad when players complain about it. They should leave the whining about refs to the fans.

Which is why I think it may have been a concerted strategy from the Pacers to turn the officiating tide in their favor for game 5. I found it unusual for Paul George and David West to both come out like that, and for Lance to allude to it as well. Only Luis Scola acted as the voice of reason, which is funny because he complains about calls mid-game more than anyone else on the team.

Despite a $25K fine (to Paul George) and looking like sore losers, the Pacers have put the refs on notice that they think they’re being unfairly treated. And it puts the Pacers fans back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on notice, and they’ll let the refs know about it every time a call is made against the Pacers in game 5. If my theory is correct, we might see some Heat fans complain about the officiating should the Pacers win the next one.

PS: Chris Andersen, who missed game 4, and Ray Allen, are both listed as “iffy” for game 5. I don’t think it matters who is missing as long as LeBron is playing.