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Jeff Hornacek Utah's Favorite Sun

What has former Jazz great and assistant coach Jeff Hornacek been up to in the 19 weeks since becoming head coach of the Phoenix Suns? Here’s a rundown:

Hornacek’s Coaching Style

JazzBasketball was all over this one immediately after official word broke that Hornacek was leaving. The following day at his introductory press conference, Hornacek confirmed that he envisioned his coaching style resembling a blend between longtime Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jazz Hall-of-Famer Jerry Sloan.

From the AP:
His coaching style, he said, would be heavily influenced by his days playing for Cotton Fitzsimmons in Phoenix and Jerry Sloan in Utah.

“Hopefully, I can take Jerry’s toughness, Cotton’s enthusiasm and confidence-building and blend them together,” Hornacek said, “and become a great coach like some of the great coaches that have been here in the past.'”

Hornacek’s Offense

1. In a 1-on-1 interview with Grandland’s Zach Lowe, Hornacek clearly values the effectiveness of the pick&roll in today’s NBA:
When you look at the game today, with the rule changes — that’s why everyone is going to some sort of pick-and-roll. The rules are, you can’t touch that guy with your hands. It’s not like the old days, where you could hand check.”

2. It’s also clear Hornacek wants to push the tempo:
“If you can get it in the post, or penetrate and kick out, and get that early shot in the first seven seconds, or maybe eight seconds of the shot clock … Statistics say in the first eight seconds, you shoot a much higher percentage. A lot of it depends on what kind of players you have. I knew they had [Goran] Dragic, who can fly up and down the court. And obviously now, with Eric Bledsoe, those two guys jell perfectly.”

3. That answer and several others also demonstarte Hornacek plans to utilize advanced basketball metrics when making strategic decisions:
We gotta get rid of that long 2. I’m not opposed to the middle jumper, in that 15- or 16-foot range. I think all but two teams that were in the playoffs, their effective field goal percentages were above 51 percent. If you can shoot 15-footers and shoot 52 percent, OK, you’re beating the average. You can’t totally discount those shots.”

Hornacek’s Defense

While it’s impossible to judge until outcomes and fundamentals are apparent, it’s obvious Hornacek is committed to improving a Suns’ defense that ranked 23rd in points allowed per possession and 25th in FG% allowed.

1. One of Hornacek’s first moves was to hire former Celtics’ assistant Mike Longabardi. Longabardi arrived in Boston in 2007-08 (same year as KG and Ray Allen) and served as a pseudo assistant-to-the-assistant – helping lead-assistant Tom Thibodeau install his vaunted defense that would bring Boston the 2008 title and earn Thibs the head coaching job of the Chicago Bulls in 2010.

In 2011, Longabardi was promoted to the bench in Thibodeau’s old position (Lawrence Frank held it in 2010-11) running the Celtics’ defense as the de-facto defensive coordinator and Boston finished the 2012-13 season ranked 6th in defensive efficiency. Longabardi’s defensive philosophy mirrors that of Thibodeau.

From Fox Sports Arizona:
We want to protect the paint at all costs. Then we have to get out to the 3-point line and take that away … especially from the corner. Then you want to defend without fouling and finish with the rebound.”

2. From Hornacek’s Grantland interview, Jeff also revealed the similarities he shares with both Longabardi and Thibodeau defensively.

Lowe: You guys hired Mike Longabardi from Boston. I assume this means you’ll run the Tom Thibodeau defense that swept the league — trying to keep all pick-and-rolls toward the sideline, on one side of the floor, and dropping your big men back into help position instead of having them trap up high like Miami does?

Hornacek: I always like to keep the ball on the side. When I played point guard, and I got stuck on the side, it was always more difficult for me than when I could get around and into the middle of the court — where I could see everything. There are so many more things that become available when you get into the middle. That’s what I like to do, and we hired Mike, who has run Boston’s defense the last three years. We’ve looked at a lot of things they do, I’ve watched them, and I see a lot of things I like to do.

From a Jazz-perspective, the teams that cause Utah’s vaunted pick&roll (whether it be Stockton&Malone or Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer) the most problems were Phil Jackson teams (Bulls/Lakers) that forced side screen-roll baseline.

3. Hornacek then echoed defensive rhetoric reminiscent of all old-school NBA head coaches, particularly the one he played for in Utah.
From azcentral.com:
A lot of it is desire,” Hornacek said. “You can take a guy that’s not very good defensively, maybe like I was, but if you played hard enough and smart enough, you can make up for things. We have some great athletes on this team. Once we get them with the desire to play that defense, to do it the right way and do it in terms of our concepts, that’s an advantage we can use.”

Patience vs Toughness

In the early stages of Suns’ training camp, azcentral.com reports Hornacek has proven to be a patient and calming influence but also was not immune from forcefully getting his point across:
-“The first thing I’ve seen is he’s really patient,” Suns center Marcin Gortat said. “He understands that we have a really young group of guys, and it’s going to take time to learn everything.”

“One of the only questions came from the compliment that Hornacek is one of the nicer people in NBA circles. Could he be firm and jump on a team’s case?

It happened twice in the first three days of camp, the last coming at the end of a scrimmage when a team trailing by three allowed the final seconds to run out rather than fouling. The team lined up to run.

“I know my voice,” said Hornacek, whose demeanor belies his competitiveness. “I’m already hoarse.'”

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Hornacek Photobomb________________________________________________________________

Hornacek on John Stockton vs Eric Bledsoe

On Tuesday, Hornacek was asked to compare Eric Bledsoe’s penchant for racking up steals with that of former Hall-of-Fame teammate John Stockton – the NBA’s all-time leader.

Matt Petersen, Suns.com: “Stockton used to get a lot of steals because he knew how the plays were going. He had great positioning,” Hornacek said. “Eric gets them in a different way. He gets it with strength. He takes the ball out of guys’ hands.

Early Results

1. Hornacek coached the Suns in the Las Vegas Summer League – a rarity for NBA head coaches. Playing the up-tempo style Hornacek desires, Phoenix averaged 93.2 points per game (in 40-minute games) and advanced to the championship game. Although they ultimately fell to Golden State, Suns players walked away impressed with their new coach.

2. The Suns won their first preseason game 130-89 over a completely overmatched Maccabi Bazan Haifa team (the Israeli League champion). According to Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic, Hornacek reportedly is not one to remain seated throughout a game. They faced stiffer competition last night yet still won 104-98 in Portland in a game where they scored 83 points and led by 14 after three quarters.

3. As the AP reports, Hornacek has also drawn high praise from virtually all members of the Suns.

-“Jeff’s awesome,” Suns forward P.J. Tucker said. “I can easily say he’s one of my favorite coaches already and I haven’t even played for him in a game'”

-“He teaches. He’s a teaching coach,” Dragic said, “especially with this group. We have young guys and I think he can teach a lot to them. He’s got a lot of experience and even if you make a mistake, he just tells you the right way to do it and after that he just lets you play.

“He’s a great motivator. When you have a bad practice he tries to lift you up. He’s supportive and I think that means a lot, especially for the young players
.”

At Least This Didn’t Happen

I’m on record for hoping that Hornacek could one day (aka this season) be head coach of the Utah Jazz. As upsetting as his departure was, I can take some solace in the relief that this also didn’t happen.

Hornacek and Burke

Not sure I could’ve handled that.

How Good Will Phoenix Be?

With both a new head coach and GM (Ryan McDonough) the Suns are in ground-zero rebuilding mode right now. They have two nice building blocks in Bledsoe (acquired in a 3-team deal in exchange for Jared Dudley) at PG, and #5-overall pick Alex Len at center (Len had stress-fracture surgery on both ankles over the summer and is working back into shape).

After that, everything else looks suspect at-best and ugly at-worst. Hornacek is dealing with a roster where his top-12 currently consist of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat, Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown, Archie Goodwin, Gerald Green, Marcus Morris, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee. Even with Len working back into the mix – that’s still only 15-20-win material right there.

The Suns project to be bad this year, but the goal is for Hornacek to begin to instilling his coaching identity on the young players he has to work with. The hope is that the Suns can foster some internal growth this season and then potentially add a few pieces via free agency to gradually work their way back to the top half of the Western Conference.

It’s a multi-season rebuilding process in Phoenix and while Suns are still at the starting gate – as of now they appear to have the right man leading them.

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Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently published an extensive piece on Chris Webber’s basketball career – in which he later argued that Webber deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, his article include several blatant inaccuracies in regards to Sacramento’s 1999 playoff series against the Utah Jazz.

Zach Lowe inaccuracies on Chris Webber

1. Webber did not get into a “shoving match with Malone” in Game 5. The confrontation took place between Karl Malone and Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson on the Kings’ third possession of the game. Williamson thought Malone threw his left elbow at him on the rebound when the two locked arms (more on this later) and words were exchanged as Williamson refused to let go and Karl tried to break free. Both players received technicals and Greg Ostertag and Vlade Divac even got into a slap-fight as players rushed in to “separate everyone else.” A few possessions later Webber picked up a technical as he was still arguing about Malone’s “elbow.” Utah capitalized on Webber and the Kings’ emotion and roared out to a 16-5 start.

2. Costas and Collins did have that actual exchange about Webber, but it took place in the 2nd-qtr after Webber hit a mid-range jumper over reserve Jazz center Todd Fuller and proceeded to jaw at Fuller as he ran back down the court (can view here at 3:00-mark). Webber never got involved with Malone.

CWebb and Williamson

Perhaps Zach Lowe simply made an honest mistake here (although neither player bears a striking resemblance to the other), but to those unfamiliar with the actual events of the game – those two “mistakes” would inflate one’s opinion and admiration of Chris Webber and add more intrigue to Lowe’s piece much more than the reality of what transpired.

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Personally, I do not feel like Chris Webber should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame. His “peak” years contained numerous injury issues (in which the Kings actually posted winning percentage’s that were nearly equal to when he played), lacked a signature individual postseason performance and climaxed in just one conference finals appearance.

I believe the attraction to send Webber to Springfield stems from the attraction many had to Webber during his playing career: The guy was one of the most physically gifted bigs to ever play the game. At 6-10 he had unbelievable hands and could pass, handle, shoot, post-up and run like very few others. He may not have met everyone’s lofty expectations, but he turned that skillset into a very successful professional career. He had a very good NBA career, just not a Hall-of-Fame one.

Fortunately for Lowe and Webber, in today’s society that awards trophies for participation and sparks HOF debates for virtually everyone in an effort to drum up ratings (see Jeff Van Gundy’s impassioned plea during the NBA Finals that Tracy McGrady is a HOFer), it won’t surprise me one bit to see C-Webb in Springfield one day.

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Back to the ’99 Kings/Jazz series. The Kings had a strategy that was as clear as Jon Barry’s nose. It was their plan to “lock” Malone up with non-basketball plays in hopes that something beneficial/violent would occur as Malone tried to break free. It occurred earlier in the regular season during a Rockets/Jazz game when Houston reserve forward Othella Harrington grabbed Malone from behind as he was running down-court. Malone’s response was to turn around and hit Harrington in the face – a move which earned him a flagrant foul and a suspension for the subsequent game.

In Game 3, Webber tried to bear-hug Karl as Malone went up for a rebound. With his superior strength, Malone threw Webber to the floor like a rag doll and Webber landed with a thud. The raucous Kings fans booed in outrage as if Malone were the guilty party – and the referees agreed and awarded Malone with a critical 3rd-foul that sent him to the bench for the remainder of the half. This was a key moment in an eventual Kings’ overtime win.

That alone was not an isolated incident. In the 4th-qtr of Game 4, Vlade Divac latched onto Malone’s arm on a rebound – and again Karl threw Vlade to the ground. This time it backfired on Sacramento as the referees (thankfully) didn’t take the bait and Utah scored the go-ahead basket in transition with Vlade still on the floor [Can watch here at the 22:02-minute mark). The Malone/Williamson incident to open Game 5 was actually the third time the Kings tried that tactic and did not involve Webber.

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Additionally, it needs to be said more often that Chris Webber’s “hard foul” on Stockton to open Game 2 rivals any Karl Malone elbow in terms of cheapness and maliciousness. Although it says a lot about the success of Sacramento’s franchise that this has somehow become a seminal moment in their team’s history (conversely as big a Malone-homer as I am, I feel Malone’s elbow on David Robinson in ’98 was one of the most shameful plays of his career) – not only was it premeditated by Webber but it played a significant role in Stockton&Malone never winning a championship in the season that was thought to be their best chance. After the hit Stockton was never the same player for the rest of the postseason and in the offseason required what was called “undisclosed” surgery. Normally Stock would bounce right up after a fall, but this time Stockton stayed down, and stayed down for awhile. Slowly he got to his knees and stayed there momentarily before gingerly getting to his feet. Dennis Rodman was suspended for a ’94 playoff game for a leg-whip on Stockton (as well as under-cutting Tom Chambers) and Webber’s blow was as bush-league as that.

Not only did Jerry Sloan want to fight Chris Webber immediately after the cheapshot, but later when asked why he thought Webber wanted to hit Stockton, Sloan’s response was because he wasn’t man enough to hit Karl Malone.

The other noteworthy Chris Webber footnote that Lowe failed to bring up from that ’99 series was the disappearing act Webber made late in those games. The play of Utah’s centers was atrocious, and in the 4th-quarters of their victories in Games 4&5, Jerry Sloan opted to play Malone at center and Bryon Russell at power forward. Although Russell did play PF in college at Long Beach State, he should have been no match for Webber yet he defended Webber to a standstill – fronting Webber in the post and slapping the ball away as he went up to take a shot. On the few times Webber did get inside, Russell sent him to the line where Webber shot a horrendous percentage (45% in the regular season and 40% in the playoffs). That the Kings remained in those games at all was largely due to the play of Vlade Divac (who in ’99 was their go-to post-up option in crunchtime over Webber) and Vernon Maxwell and Jon Barry.

The ’99 Kings/Jazz matchup was one of the best first-round series in NBA history, featuring dramatic finishes and physical play taking place inside the two loudest buildings (Arco Arena vs Delta Center) in the NBA. If you’re a Jazz fan or merely an NBA fan who appreciates the history of the league, it’s definitely a series you should be aware of – just make sure the facts you know are the correct ones.

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Rajon Rondo - 2006 NBA Draft Pick - #21

In what would prove to be a very weak class – the Boston Celtics made the steal of the 2006 Draft – trading for Rajon Rondo in a deal in which they acquired Rondo’s rights as the 21st pick for the simple cost of paying the final $1.9 million of Brian Grant’s contract and a late-2007 1st-round pick (owed to them from the Cavs).

Despite being the highest-rated point guard (and the first one off the board), Rondo fell all the way to #21 due to many valid concerns over his shooting ability (or lack thereof). Rondo dropped because that weakness over-shadowed his strengths, which essentially included everything needed to be a star point guard in the NBA – minus the perimeter shooting.

Fast-forward 7 years, and Rondo is a 4-time All-Star with 2 NBA Finals appearances and 18 career triple-doubles. He’s had a triple-double in the NBA Finals, and a 40-point 10-assist game in the conference finals. Although he has improved his shooting to the point teams have to respect his mid-range jumper, for the most part Rondo has done this despite still being a below-average shooter. In his 4 all-star seasons, Rondo has posted shooting percentages outside 15-feet of 29.8%, 38.7%, and 35.1% before improving it to 44.1% in the first-half of the 2012-13 season in which he would miss the final 44 games with a torn acl. While it certainly helps to play alongside the likes of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett – Rondo had definitely become a top-tier point guard and one of the most unique talents in the league. This was a pick and transaction the Boston Celtics would re-do ten times out of ten.

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Rondo was a freak athlete who could penetrate, rebound, and play defense yet the fears over his perimeter shot dropped him to the 21st pick. This exhibits many of the keys to finding steals in the bottom-half of the first-round. Too often – solid prospects who are really good in several areas are downgraded because of a single shortcoming. Roy Hibbert fell to the 18th pick because he was considered too slow despite being a 7-2 shotblocker with good hands. David West fell to the 18th pick because he was labeled as an “undersized PF” despite his offensive polish, physicality, and rebounding ability.

In the mid-to-late 1st-round you’re obviously getting nowhere near as clean a prospect as you are at the top of the draft. The warts and limitations are much more noticeable and the tantalizing potential not nearly as high. Great drafting teams are able to identify the players in whom they envision possess enough strengths to overcome their weakness, and who have the character and desire to improve in the areas they are lacking. The Spurs loved Kahwi Leonard’s potential as a physical defensive wing and didn’t allow his shaky perimeter game to scare them off because they felt his shot could be re-worked and significantly improved. The Nuggets didn’t allow Kenneth Faried’s lack of ideal height and skill to overshadow the vision that his athleticism and motor would be a perfect fit in their high-tempo style.

So like every year, in the 2013 NBA Draft there will be prospects available in the bottom-half of the first-round who scouts and experts will say can’t do x or y. And like every year, several of them will still find a team that isn’t settling for them but rather targeting them because they envision them becoming an above-average player.

Somewhere beyond #14 on Chad Ford’s Top 100, there is a player who in 2018 fans will be saying “Man, I can’t believe we didn’t pick him!” And then there will be one team feeling like they robbed their annoying neighbor’s house and got away with it. Such is the nature of draft night steals.

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NBA Champions

The Miami Heat will meet the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals. The matchup will ensure that there will still be only 9 different franchises who have won an NBA championship since 1980.

The NBA’s lack of parity is found nowhere else in the 4 major sports. In the same time-span, there have been 20 different World Series Champions in Major League Baseball. The NHL has had 16 different Stanley Cup Champions and the NFL has had 15 different franchises win at least one Super Bowl.

Here is the select group of franchises who have won championships since 1980:

NBA Titles Since 1980
1. Lakers 10
2. Bulls 6
3. Celtics 4
4. Spurs 4
5. Pistons 3
6. Rockets 2
7. Heat 2
8. Mavericks 1
9. 76ers 1

With such an exclusive group of teams, simply reaching the Finals is often viewed as a major accomplishment.

NBA Finals Apperances

Expanding to include any franchise that has reached the NBA Finals since 1980 – the pool increases by a factor of 2 with 66 Finals participants spread across 18 different franchises:

NBA Finals Since 1980
1. Lakers 16
2. Bulls 6
3. Celtics 5
4. Spurs 5
5. Pistons 5
6. Rockets 4
7. Heat 4
8. 76ers 4
9. Jazz 2
10. Knicks 2
11. Magic 2
12. Mavericks 2
13. Nets 2
14. Supersonics 2
15. Trailblazers 2
16. Cavaliers 1
17. Pacers 1
18. Suns 1

And of course, that means there are 12 franchises who haven’t reached the NBA Finals since 1980.

No NBA Finals Appearances Since 1980

Here are the 12 teams who have failed to reach the Finals in the past 34 seasons, with expansion franchises noted in parentheses:

No NBA Finals Since 1980
1. Bobcats (2004)
2. Bucks
3. Clippers
4. Grizzlies (1995)
5. Hawks
6. Kings
7. Nuggets
8. Pelicans (1988)
9. Raptors (1995)
10. Timberwolves (1990)
11. Warriors
12. Wizards

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To me, this further exemplifies the many frustrations that are associated with being an NBA fan. (And by “fan” I mean “supporter or follower” not “bandwagon jumper” a.k.a. “Heat fans“). You have followings of 70% of the league who haven’t tasted a championship in over 30 years (if at all) and 40% of the league who hasn’t even reached the ultimate stage in that same time span.

To say there has been an imbalance of power would be an understatement. Nevertheless, we continue to cheer, watch 82 games per year, follow the standings, follow free agent signings and even obsess over pre-draft workouts. This is how the NBA can bring people together. Individuals across the world are united by a common entity, and the bond formed is much stronger than a simple piggybacking on success or fads. You’re united by failures, by frustrations, by unforgettable moments and by hope. Any success – big or small – is appreciated and NBA seasons don’t fade and blend together with a binary  “success or failure” declaration based upon the end result. They’re judged on effort, by the ability to maximize results based off resources and by progressing step-by-step toward one day obtaining that elusive title.

I don’t know when a 10th team will join the “Elite 9,” but for the sake of 70% of the league’s fanbases – I hope it’s soon.

Jazz Fans

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Vogel and Hibbert

Everyone loves to blame the coach. Sometimes the blame is justified, sometimes it isn’t. Nevertheless, when things don’t go well in sports the head coach is often the first and easiest target.

With that said, there’s nothing I respect more than hearing a high-profile head coach admit they were wrong. With today’s 24/7 news cycle and a media ready to pounce on every word, to admit to a game-changing mistake takes confidence, honesty, and as Bill Raftery would phrase it: “onions.”

I was further impressed by Indiana’s 39-year old head coach Frank Vogel as his Pacers played the NBA’s best team down to the wire for the second consecutive game, still less than 48 hours after Vogel’s highly questionable decision to bench Roy Hibbert late in Game 1. During the telecast, TNT’s crew mentioned that one of the first thing’s Vogel did in the lockerroom after Game 1 was tell the team he made a mistake not having Hibbert on the floor. Vogel echoed these sentiments in public to the media where he said “I would say we’ll probably have [Hibbert] in next time.”

That explained much of how Vogel (who at the age of 37 took over the Pacers with 38 games to go in the 2010-11 season and then coached them to a 42-24 record with no training camp in 2011-12) has quickly earned the respect, trust and loyalty of his collection of blue-collar, no-nonsense players. It’s also shows why the player who had the most reason to feel bitter – Roy Hibbert – tweeted this after Game 1:

Hibbert Tweet

A lot of times young coaches who aren’t confident in their ability (or job security) will defend decisions that didn’t work out by blaming it on their players’ execution. Even though nobody would’ve questioned Vogel’s choice had Paul George not played soft defense in allowing LeBron to catch the ball 17-feet from the basket and then convert one of the easiest layups he’s ever had – Vogel (rightly so) didn’t blame his 3rd-year pro. He explained his thought-process during the timeout while admitting next time he would do things differently.

In Game 2 he did. His team played their tails off and in the final minute his adjustments (not switching LeBron/PG screen-roll like they did in Game 1 and primarily leaving Hibbert in the game) resulted in two James’ turnovers in the final minute.

Vogel’s willingness to take the blame reminded me of Jerry Sloan’s post-game press conference following Utah’s Game 6 and series win over Denver in 2010. There was a situation late in the 1st-half when Paul Millsap was cut, and amidst the confusion Jerry puzzingly substituted both Millsap and Kyle Korver (replacing Korver with D-League call-up Othyus Jeffers). The confusion backfired when Utah missed a technical free throw on the ensuing possession with Korver (Utah’s best FT shooter) on the bench. Jerry immediately sent Korver back into the game at the next whistle.

Following the 112-104 win, Jerry closed his press conference by praising his team before bringing up his own mistake without any prompting:
“…We had a lot of guys play well…I just about screwed us up with the substitution that I did. I’m glad we won the game, but I kinda got screwed up there when Paul got hurt and had blood on him and instead of making one mistake I turned around and made two in a row…so that was a mistake on my part. That won’t be the last one either. Anybody else? Thank you.”

Sloan’s post-game display of humility was not an isolated incident.

The late Larry H. Miller, Utah’s beloved owner for nearly 24 years, said in a 2007 radio interview that Jerry regularly accepted responsibility for his mistakes to his players in the locker room.

Play Button

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Just as the Utah Jazz competed hard every night for Jerry Sloan regardless of the odds – the Indiana Pacers have fully bought into Vogel’s sell-job that they are good enough to beat a team that had won 46 of their last 49 games prior to Game 2.

In March Madness you’ll see a Cinderella team make a push and have their confidence snowball, but in the NBA the best teams win in a best-of-7 series. The Pacers are huge underdogs to the Heat, yet it’s obvious they have no fear and every single player on the court believes they are the better team. That attitude and mindset starts at the top.

This whole team is showing great desire and great heart and great belief,” Vogel said after their Game 2 victory. “They believe we can win the series.”

They also believe in their head coach, because he’s given them reason to.

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The Pacers did a lot of good things in their 103-102 overtime loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but even prior to LeBron’s game-winning layup – one basic play with a clever twist caused them significant problems defensively. Late in the game, Miami ran an unconventional variation of high screen-roll with LeBron and Wade. Instead of a bigman (or pseudo-big like Battier in their small-ball lineup), the Heat opted to utilize their guard as the screener for Dwayne Wade and LeBron James – and the Pacers were unable to stop it either time.

Heat high screen roll #1

#1. The Heat bring Ray Allen up to screen for Wade. Wade’s defender – Sam Young – choses to go over the screen which puts the defensive pressure on Allen’s man – George Hill (circled). Hill, a point used to fighting over picks – not having his man set on-ball screens, is playing the screener softly. As a result, Hill isn’t in a position to show-out hard which would force Wade to elongate his path and give Young a chance to recover. (Also, why Young would go over on a screen 26-feet from the basket is beyond me.)

Heat high screen roll #2

#2. As a result, Hill’s choices are to pick up Wade and allow Allen to pop out for an open three, or recover on Allen and trust the help-defense behind him.

Heat high screen roll #3

#3. Hill opts to go after Allen – giving Wade a wide-open lane to the basket.

Heat high screen roll #4

#4. The only strongside help-defender in position to impede Wade is David West, and West opts not to leave Shane Battier (camped in the deep right corner) and Wade scores an uncontested layup to put Miami up 2 with 43-seconds remaining.

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Fast-forward to overtime. Again the score is tied – this time with under 20-seconds remaining. Out of a timeout Erik Spoelstra again calls for a high-screen roll – this time with point guard Norris Cole coming up to screen for LeBron.

Heat high screen roll - OT #1

#1. The Pacers have a different strategy this time – to switch it with point guard George Hill (6-2/190) picking up LeBron (6-8/250).

Heat high screen roll - OT #2

#2. This is a huge mismatch as LeBron can power past Hill. Indiana opted to take 7-2 shotblocker Roy Hibbert out of the game to match up with the Heat’s “small-ball” – so David West is again the strong-side help-defender guarding Chris Bosh camped in the deep corner. The rest of the Pacers are matched up with quality 3pt-shooters spacing around the perimeter.

Heat high screen roll - OT #3

3. West half-heartedly helps off Bosh and LeBron blows past Hill for a go-ahead layup with 10-seconds remaining.

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Much will be made over the Pacers’ defense on the final possession in which LeBron easily scored the buzzer-beating layup – but their normally solid defense fell apart defending Miami’s unconventional screen-roll. It’s a brilliant wrinkle from Spoelstra’s standpoint as it put George Hill in uncomfortable and unusual (for a point guard) positions and involved their best 3pt-shooters (Allen/Cole) as the “pick&pop” man rather than a frontcourt player such as Bosh (28% 3pt-shooter) or the the cold-shooting Shane Battier (0-4 in Game 1 from behind the arc).

Close playoff games usually boil down to matchups and adjustments – and late in Game 1 Spoelstra clearly had the advantage over Pacers’ head coach Frank Vogel. It will be interesting to see how Vogel and the Pacers opt to defend this Wing/PG high screen-roll in the ensuing games. This is where NBA head coaches earn their paychecks. It can be argued if Frank Vogel’s late-game decisions lost the game for the Pacers – but Erik Spoelstra’s moves unquestionably won the game for Miami.

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