The Indiana Pacers won Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals because they stopped LeBron James from getting a layup on a last-second play when they didn't do so in Game 1. But it's probably not the play you expected.
Many will compare James' game-winning layup with 2.2 seconds left in Game 1 to his game-sealing turnover with 17 seconds left in Game 2. They'll note that Roy Hibbert was on the bench for the former and on the floor for the latter, giving ammunition to the idea that Frank Vogel messed up in Game 1.
But the two plays are completely different and don't merit a comparison. As I wrote Thursday, the defensive objective changes once you get down to just 2.2 seconds. The most important segment of the play is the actual pass in, and Hibbert's lack of mobility hurts you in trying to deny the right players the ball. The breakdown occurred when Paul George bodied James the wrong way, and Hibbert couldn't have done anything to fix that. With 17 seconds left, though, the most important segment of the play is what happens after the ball is inbounded. In that sense, it's a lot like a normal 24-second possession, which you'd obviously want Hibbert in to defend.
Because of that, the proper way to contrast Vogel's decision-making in the two games is to compare that play to the one a possession earlier with 24.8 seconds left in Game 1 (and 16 on the shot clock), when James drove right and scored a go-ahead a layup while Hibbert sat. That was the possession Vogel botched by not having Hibbert in, not the very last play.
Vogel did not make the same mistake twice, and it made a big difference. Hibbert's presence, along with a tremendous defensive recovery by George, cut off James' angle at the rim and enabled David West to converge and deflect a kick-out pass for the turnover.
The Heat essentially ran the same play both times, which gives us a chance to put two frames up side-by-side and explain what changed in Indiana's defensive coverages.
Here are videos of the two plays.
Both times, the Heat sent their point guard (Norris Cole in Game 1, Mario Chalmers in Game 2) to set a screen for James in the hopes that the pick would give James enough room to get to the basket going right. Chris Bosh, the biggest player on the floor for the Heat, screened the point guard to come to the ball, then faded to the right corner so he could pull Indiana's biggest player away from the hoop.
Here's a look at how the floor was spaced as the point guard screened James in the two plays.
Already, you saw one big difference. In the play in Game 1, West was positioned outside the paint, even though Bosh hadn't finished his drift to the three-point line. As James came off the pick up top, he knew that West couldn't bother him at the rim like Hibbert can.
But in Game 2, Hibbert made sure to stick one foot in the paint as the play was happening, even though Bosh was closer to the three-point line. It's as if he was trying to send James a message. Take it in here, and I'll be waiting. It's entirely possible that threw James off psychologically.
Let's now look at the moment where the Pacers needed to decide how to handle the screen up top. In both cases, George was guarding James and George Hill was guarding the point guard. In Game 1, there was clearly a miscommunication based on how Hill guarded the play.
Hill must have thought the Pacers were switching the play. Problem is, George was in a similar defensive position, and if Hill was to instead recover to Cole, George would have potentially cut James off. Instead, George saw Hill's move, panicked and switched, giving Miami the exact matchup they wanted.
Compare this to what Hill did in Game 2.
Hill defended the screen like teams often defend picks involving small players rather than big men. He jumped out to try to slow down James, then quickly rushed back to his man as James' defender recovered. (Lots of teams call this "one-swiping," hence the term I used in the screenshot). This is potentially dangerous, and in this case, it almost fell flat because Hill nearly ran into his own man. But George made an agile play to avoid Hill, and it worked out well because Miami couldn't get the switch they wanted.
Also: note the difference in positioning between West and Hibbert. The former was hanging around the perimeter too much in Game 1. The latter was firmly planted near the rim in Game 2.
James eventually got right both times and drove to the rim. In Game 1, he had Hill switched onto him and was able to beat him off the dribble. In Game 2, he had George on him and didn't quite get as far ahead as he wanted. Here are the two screenshots that show the difference.
It's amazing what a one-step difference in positioning makes. In Game 1, Hill let James get his shoulders by him, which is exactly the moment when a player blows by his defender off the dribble. Moreover, West had both feet outside the lane, pulled away by what he perceived as a threat in Bosh. In Game 2, though, George made an incredible recovery to cut off James' driving lane, and Hibbert made sure to have a foot planted in the paint to further stop James' drive.
The difference doesn't look like much to the naked eye, but it is humongous in the grand scheme of things. It's also a firm reminder that for all the talk of athleticism, wingspan and the like, the most important skill any defender can have is the ability to properly position himself.
Because of that positioning, this is what the two plays look like once James got to the basket.
James got an easy layup in Game 1. He was swallowed up in Game 2 and eventually had a kickout pass deflected by West. Hence, the turnover.
Again: comparing the Game 2 play to the 2.2 second one in Game 1 where Hibbert was off the floor is unfair. The conditions change with 2.2 seconds left, and Hibbert's presence wouldn't have covered up the breakdown George made.
But comparing the Game 2 play to the sequence that preceded the 2.2 second one in Game 1 is absolutely fair. Taking Hibbert out on that play in Game 1 was a major mistake, and the Pacers paid for it. The poor positioning by West in Hibbert's place contributed to James' layup.
In addition to that, though, George stepped up in Game 2. Victimized by a bad switch with Hill in Game 1, George made a beautiful recovery and stopped James at the point of attack in Game 2. Without that effort, James would have easily scored again.
Ultimately, the Pacers knew exactly what was coming. They took the lessons from Game 1 and applied it to Game 2. That's why this series is tied.