The most important game of this young season happened on Tuesday night in Indiana. Through one quarter, it looked like the Heat would zip away. They spread the floor, negated Indiana's defense and looked like the team that dominated Games 3, 5 and 7 last June. And yet, despite all that, it was just a seven-point game at halftime.
Over the course of the next 24 minutes, the Pacers slowly regained control of the basket area. Miami's drives, normally open against all other teams, were stonewalled. Finally, after a lightning-quick first step from LeBron James ended with a mid-air collision with Roy Hibbert and a missed layup with under two minutes remaining, the Heat were beaten. Round 1 of the likely future Eastern Conference Finals went to Indiana.
Afterward, a clearly perturbed James grumbled about the Pacers' big man. Via Ethan J. Skolnick of Bleacher Report:
"He takes a lot of teams out of what they are accustomed to doing, because he is so great at the rim, protecting the rim, and they allow him to use his verticality rule more than anyone in our league."
"His verticality rule." Those three words are behind Hibbert's dominance. This is the official language of the concept, straight from the league's rulebook.
"A player is entitled to a vertical position even to the extent of holding his arms above his shoulders, as in post play or when double-teaming in pressing tactics."
Over time, that rule has evolved to applying to defending attacking perimeter players. The story goes that Hibbert realized he could no longer take charges and instead needed to use his size appropriately. This gained traction after Hibbert jumped straight up to alter Luol Deng's buzzer beater last December, and it continued to gain steam as the Pacers advanced deep into the playoffs. Now, this is Indiana's trump card against the rest of the league. Hibbert is the LeBron of rim protectors because he has mastered this essential rule.
LeBron's gripe is interesting, though. Have we reached the point where Hibbert's reputation for maintaining verticality when protecting the rim has exceeded reality?
This is a difficult question because the rule itself is so hard to enforce. The defensive player is allowed to jump straight up and down with his arms extended, but he's not allowed to jump into the driver. He's allowed to absorb contact, but he cannot initiate it. He can be a tall pillar in midair, but as soon as that pillar tilts, it's a foul.
But how do you tell the difference between absorbing and initiating contact? How do you determine whether Hibbert is truly vertical with his arms at the point of contact instead of holding them down? These are difficult judgment calls for officials in the heat of the moment.
Consider one crucial call from Tuesday's game that likely drew LeBron's ire.
This is a bang-bang play. LeBron powers through Paul George in the post and jumps with all his power into Hibbert at the rim. Hibbert jumps straight up, but the weight of LeBron pushes him back and causes his previously vertical arm to dip. Nevertheless, no foul is called because it is deemed that LeBron initiated the contact.
This was probably a good no-call, but you'd surely find some officials who would call a foul on Hibbert. A ref would have to decide whether Hibbert's eventual non-vertical position is a foul in and of itself even if he didn't make contact with James with that arm, or if it happened because James initiated the contact. That's a tough decision to make even on that play.
It gets even tougher when you consider a play like this from Friday night.
Here, Hibbert is whistled for a foul, ostensibly because his arms aren't straight up. Yet he clearly beats Cody Zeller to the spot, and his arms appear to be on the ball, not necessarily on Zeller's body. Again: it's a judgment call for the official. Which part of the "verticality" process does he emphasize?
In this case, the bend in Hibbert's arm was enough. But that wasn't the case on this Jeffrey Taylor drive later in the game.
That's where Hibbert's reputation comes into play. On a bang-bang call like that, Hibbert often gets the benefit of the doubt. It also happened twice in a three-minute span in the first quarter a week ago against the Jazz. Here, he clearly jumps into Enes Kanter, but avoids a foul.
And here, it's unclear whether he actually beat Gordon Hayward to the spot on this no-call.
The second clip could go either way. This screenshot doesn't provide much clarity, but it does appear that Hibbert's arms are titled down a bit as Hayward jumps into him.
But consider this: Would Hibbert's backup, Ian Mahinmi, escape with a no-call there? Probably not, considering Mahinmi averaged twice as many fouls per 36 minutes (6.6 to 3.7) as Hibbert. Hibbert's technical savvy defending the rim is obviously on another level than Mahinmi's, but that alone doesn't explain that huge gulf. Reputation matters, too.
Still, I keep coming back to this: it's hard to enforce verticality properly. Could anyone tell which of these two plays against Tim Duncan were considered fouls?
The first one is a foul, probably because Duncan fell over and not because of anything Hibbert did. The second one was a no-call. I've slowed down both clips multiple times, and I'm still not sure I can spot a major difference in Hibbert's defense between the two. Perhaps he's a millisecond late to the spot on the foul call, but it's really hard to see. From the birds-eye view, it looks like his arms are straight up.
And yet, a foul was called.
This puts the Pacers in a perilous position. They need Hibbert out of foul trouble to beat Miami and eventually win the title, and Mahinmi is not good enough as a backup. When Hibbert is on the court, the Pacers outscore teams by an average of 14.6 points per 100 possessions. When he's on the bench, they are outscored by 1.1 point per 100 possessions. All it takes is for one official who has a quick trigger on the whistles to take away Indiana's best weapon.
By contrast, every other contender has to be freaking out that Hibbert's reputation for verticality is growing. Hibbert is the ultimate equalizer, the most unique weapon in the league outside of LeBron. As long as he's allowed to bend the rules protecting the rim, the Pacers are in the catbird seat. The best chance of beating the Pacers is to get Hibbert off the floor, and the only way to do that is to challenge him at the basket.
Rarely has the interpretation of a single NBA rule determined so much of the league's hierarchy.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.
Right now, Kobe Bryant looks like an old Andre Miller. At best, he's Wizards-era Michael Jordan, but even that appears to be a bit of a stretch four games into his recovery from a torn Achilles.
Not that this should be a surprise, mind you. Nobody can jump back onto the court after a devastating injury like Bryant had and be himself. The only reason people expected more is the myth-building that happens when someone like Kobe goes down like this.
The biggest problem is that Bryant can't yet generate much power on his left leg. When you suffer an injury like an Achilles, you can't put as much weight on it during rehab, and thus it often becomes smaller than the other leg. This has been pointed out by several people, but look at the difference in the two legs here, for example. (HT: Ethan Sherwood Strauss).
Westbrook shoots over Kobe pic.twitter.com/GAPfI4SHvv— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) December 14, 2013
The same thing happened to Elton Brand when he suffered the same injury, and it dramatically affected his game. Notice how Brand only seems to shoot turnaround jumpers going to his right? It's because that allows him to power off his stronger leg. He rarely turns the other way because he can't generate the kind of power needed to elevate and shoot over defenders.
Bryant is struggling with this now. He's having lots of trouble turning off his right shoulder for a jumper because that requires spinning off his left foot to get separation. Notice how his left foot skids on this play against the Thunder.
That slows down Bryant's move. Worse, notice how he must pump fake twice to have any chance of getting a shot off. If his left leg was as strong as his right, Bryant could get enough lift off it to at least shoot over his defender, even if it'd be an off-balanced attempt. Here, though, he simply can't rise up, forcing him to go to the Wizards MJ-style pump fake and awkward attempt.
You see the same type of thing on this shot attempt against the Suns. Kobe eventually is able to get his shot off, but only after two previous moves that require lift generated from his left leg fail.
This explains why he's struggling on some of his normal moves. Throw in his typically bad defense, even against very weak perimeter players, and he's a minus for L.A. right now.
But there is some good news. Kobe's passing has been excellent, and after trying and failing a bunch of jump passes he can no longer make in his first two games, he's stuck to what he can do well, delivering excellent pocket bounce passes and tilting the defense. He can still get to the hoop driving left and powering off his right foot, as this drive against old nemesis Derek Fisher proved.
And his performance against Charlotte was a strong sign that things are progressing. He elevated nicely on his jump shot, bending his knees further than usual to get more power. Most importantly, on his signature move of the game, notice which foot he jumps off when finishing.
Left hand, left foot. An encouraging sign for Lakers fans.
SACRIFICE OF THE WEEK
There are so many pieces to a play's puzzle that don't show up in the box score. We'll highlight one such piece each week in this section.
In a league where three-point shooting is so important, proper technique on closeouts is an essential skill. You have to be able to run dangerous shooters off the line, but you can't just fly past them and surrender an easy driving lane.
Want to know how it's done? Watch Kawhi Leonard on this critical late-game play against the Timberwolves on Friday.
He stays on balance when running out to Kevin Martin, angles him to his left, then stays down when Martin tries to pump fake and get a two-point shot off. The Timberwolves are forced to scramble and Ricky Rubio flings a wild layup off the backboard.
Leonard has incredible physical tools, but they only come into play because of his technique. This is why he's one of the league's blossoming two-way players.
10 other observations from the week that was.
- It's time to talk about Ricky Rubio's shooting. This season, Rubio is hitting 37 percent from the floor, which is about a percentage point over his career average. He's taken 66 shots at the rim this year and hit 41 percent of them. He's taken 77 mid-range jumpers and hit just 27 of them. About the only place he's decent is at the top of the key beyond the arc, where he's become a 39-percent set shooter, but even that's deceiving because teams leave him wide open. There's a lot going on in this screenshot — the Spurs are scrambling after letting Kevin Martin go middle — but the defining image is clear. The Spurs have zero problem with Rubio taking a wide-open three on a critical possession.
- Want to know why Chandler Parsons is back up to 41 percent shooting from three-point range after hitting just eight of his first 37 attempts this season? Compare the arc of this shot to this one. The first one, from Thursday's game against Portland looks like a moonball compared to the second, which is from an opening-week contest against Dallas.
- Andrew Bogut is such a huge piece for the Warriors' defense, but it's a little sad to see how much his offense has fallen apart. Teams just don't guard him on pick and rolls anymore, forcing him to stop short from rolling all the way to the rim. Notice how Klay Thompson doesn't even look at him here even though he's in perfect position to roll down the rim for a layup. Bogut manages to stay effective as a passer, screener and offensive rebounder, but come playoff time, when the smallest weaknesses can be exploited, he will need to become more of a scoring threat.
- Man, the Suns are so much fun to watch. Everybody knows that you need to stop their transition game to win, but nobody seems to do it very well. Why? Phoenix's wings, particularly Goran Dragic and P.J. Tucker, fly up the floor. Even if you want to stop them, they just keep coming. Combine that with Eric Bledsoe's speed with the ball in his hands, and you get many terrifying possessions like this one if you even fall a half-step behind. (Also note how that play was with 2:35 left to go in the game, when players don't generally haul ass up the court because they're tired. There is no "tired" on the Suns).
- Trevor Ariza is hitting 41 percent from three-point range, but teams sure don't defend him like he's that good of a shooter.
- After an awful start to the season, Gerald Henderson is starting to show how one puts together a solid offensive repertoire simply off mid-range shots. What's striking to me is just how much elevation he gets on his mid-range shots. When you can jump this high, it helps you stay on balance and have the necessary touch to hit jumpers from many different distances and locations. (Rufus on Fire has more on Henderson's changing game).
- Watching Victor Oladipo run an offense (when he does, at least) reminds me of Russell Westbrook doing the same in his uneven rookie season. The difference? Whereas Westbrook's bugaboo was turning the ball over, shot selection is Oladipo's biggest issue. This is the kind of pull-up we've seen too much this year.
- Jared Sullinger is morphing into a really nice player. The Celtics' big man has taken on a ton of additional usage without seeing his efficiency suffer, mostly because he's now shooting some threes and longer two-point jumpers while hitting them at a decent clip. Defensively, he's hanging in there because he's not being asked to trap aggressively on the pick and roll. Both changes were Brad Stevens-driven and both were designed to minimize Sullinger's weaknesses (foot speed, lack of length to finish over players inside). Sullinger, not Jordan Crawford, is the best example of Stevens' ability to put his players in the best position to succeed.
- This defensive lapse by Jose Calderon might be the very worst I've seen all season.
- Look at all the attention Kyle Korver receives here. That's the value of elite perimeter shooting.