There is a fire burning inside the Indiana Pacers locker room, and that fire has led them to this point: two games from knocking off the Miami Heat in an upset of gargantuan proportions to the casual fan and an upset of still huge, but maybe not gargantuan, proportions to fans who understand how important defense is in the game of basketball. This is getting awesome.
Why It’s Easier to Root Against Than For LeBron: One NBA fan’s perspective
We always want an enemy. We need a narrative, and the sports world is continually creating narratives. The echo-chamber of the sports media landscape has been quieted, if only for a few days. The words “LeBron,” “winning streak” and “greatest player ever” have been reverberating into and out of ear-shot since February, while the casual NBA fan rarely heard mention of the Indiana Pacers or the San Antonio Spurs. It’s not that I don’t appreciate LeBron’s greatness, (his transcendent defense, his incredible ability to make long, accurate skip passes to open shooters), it’s just that LeBron is a nemesis, and the game will always appear to come too easy for him.
His improvement from year-to-year make it clear that he works hard to be as dominant a basketball player as he is. Still, I can’t choose to cheer for a player who dominates that easily on the court, and who clearly has never questioned the harm in branding himself as a one-man corporation since the day sponsors came sprinting to his teenage doorstep. LeBron is almost too easy to hate. Some people cheer for him because he is so-often bad-mouthed by the masses, while being hero-worshipped in every ratings-related television moment the NBA and ESPN can concoct. It’s easy to root against him because he was “The Chosen One,” appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17 year-old. His choice to film his biggest career decision in as self-important a way as any human being has ever done was clearly tasteless and lacking in humility, to put it kindly. What isn’t discussed often enough is that the show made $6 million dollars for charity. Incredibly, LeBron decided to ignore any PR advice other than that of his trusted friends, and his choice of words, “I’ll be taking my talents to South Beach…” became a punch-line for countless critics of the televised reality-show moment. As a Celtics fan, I want to disdain LeBron. As an NBA fan, I want to disdain LeBron, and yet…I realize that he is a product of the environment that has surrounded him from the get-go.
Without intimate knowledge of LeBron’s childhood, I think it’s fair to say any child in his set of circumstances would have come out warped, arrogant, narcissistic and uncomfortable.
I’ve read enough about the world of adolescent-AAU basketball, heard enough dubious things about his upbringing, born to a 16 year-old, single-parent-mom, Gloria (who has had several unsavory moments in the spotlight over the last decade), and generally think anyone who has spent his most formative years being convinced by everyone around him that he is going to be the best player in the history of the universe, who then reached the stratospheric expectations reserved for him, that he would become a one-man corporation who spouts cliches and maintains a persona in interviews that comes off as robotic, impersonal, cold, and business-like at all times.
But maybe more than LeBron’s attitude, it’s his physical dominance that makes him difficult to root for. No NBA player, and probably no athlete, has ever possessed the combination of height, strength, pure speed, lateral agility, and impeccable footwork that LeBron displays on a nightly basis. LeBron is simply too good. When he developed a semi-consistent three-point shot, the NBA lost. When he went into the post and dominated Paul George under the hoop, the NBA lost. When he began to make clutch shot after clutch shot, he became impossible to love. I remember those games with Cleveland, when he still seemed human. He could put up a triple-double in a playoff game and still miss a long jump-shot to lose a game. He was not yet indestructible, nor completely militaristic in his precision or his performance; the look in his eyes showed he still had a whisper of doubt.
During the 2012-13 NBA season, ESPN’s television coverage has done an excellent job of spotlighting the Heat, the soap-operatic Lakers, and the New York Knicks, while mostly ignoring the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies. Sometimes the spotlight, with its Kobe-tweets, it’s Melo-dramas, and it’s LeBron-adoration is nauseating. Enough to make a non Lakers/Knicks/Heat fan want to stop following the NBA. Luckily, we also live in an era when intelligent NBA blogs exist, and some of those blogs are focused on the smaller-market teams. If you want to read about the Indiana Pacers, go to http://www.eightpointsnineseconds.com. For the San Antonio Spurs, go to 48minutesofhell.com.
Before the Pacers-Heat series, out of ESPN’s panel of 20 “Experts,” 20 picked the Heat to win this series. Five picked the series to go 7 games. Most picked the series to go 6 games. Sixty-six regular season wins for Miami. Forty-nine for Indiana. Miami’s perimeter defense. The fact that they have the perfect offensive balance in LeBron, Wade, and Chris Bosh raining corner 3’s and long jumpers: reason enough to beat most teams.
But most teams are not the defensively-dominant Indiana Pacers. Great defense starts individually and then spreads collectively. The Pacers have great one-on-one defenders (Paul George, Roy Hibbert) and have above-average rebounders at every position. By playing such good individual defense, the Pacers switch less frequently on the pick-and-roll than most teams (which limits the amount of rotations that take place, in turn limiting open corner three-pointers – a Miami specialty). The Pacers also rarely double-team an opponent. They refuse to give up open three-pointers, limiting their opponents to the worst 3-point shooting in the league (32.7%) and by far the lowest field-goal percentage (42.0%). Indiana plays great defense and then does an equally impressive job rebounding the ball. They have been doing this all year. And they are continuing to do it when it matters most (with the exception of the Game 3 debacle).
The Pacers won Game 4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night because they wanted the game more than the Heat did. Lance Stephenson’s effort was sensational. Roy Hibbert’s determination was palpable. David West’s toughness and rebounding were undeniable. And Frank Vogel’s adjustments worked. Indiana’s post-game grades at eightpointsnineseconds.com.
LeBron, by the way, fouled out of only his second game as a member of the Miami Heat, after being whistled for a moving screen on Lance Stephenson with 56 seconds remaining in the game. In post-game interviews, LeBron not-surprisingly disputed several of the foul calls from Game 4, but the Pacers won this game because of two players and one coach: Roy Hibbert, with his annihilation of Miami’s big men in the paint; Lance Stephenson, with his maniacal determination; and Frank Vogel, with his defensive adjustments to Game 3.
Roy Hibert is the world’s tallest mixed martial artist, though you may already have known that.
When Lance Stephenson makes his mind up, he gets to the rim. It doesn’t always result in a hoop, and it isn’t always pretty, but it’s exactly what the Pacers need.
Birdman Flies Away
Chris Anderson scored 16 points on 7 of 7 shooting and blocked three shots in Game 1. Anderson added 7 points on 2 of 2 shooting and one block in Game 2. Birdman had 9 points on 4 of 4 shooting, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks in Game 3. Game 4: no shots, no points, no blocks. Chris Anderson has had an enormous impact on this series. Frank Vogel figured something out in Game 4. He’ll need to keep Udonis Haslem and Anderson from erupting off the bench in Games 5 – 7.
Jonah Hall writes The Darko Index in order to make sense of what is becoming a highly intriguing Eastern Conference Finals Series. Also, because he wants to understand the forces that have combined to create the enigma that is LeBron James.