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The Indiana Pacers v. the Miami Heat: Lessons about Contests

By Dennis Loo (5/23/12)

Update (6/2/12): Last night the Boston Celtics beat the Heat to make the series 1-2. The key to the game was taking advantage of the height advantage the Celtics have inside with Kevin Garnett - which was the point of my article below, an advantage that Indiana did not use against the Heat, resulting in their losing that series. As reported by The NYT today:

“We’ve got to just keep the discipline of staying with it," [Boston] Coach Doc Rivers said of featuring Garnett [in the paint].

Rondo added: “He kept preaching to just throw it up to him. We just threw it up to the rim. He went and got most of them.”

The Indiana Pacers lost last night for the second game in a row to the Miami Heat, going down 2-3 in the best of seven NBA Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, after being up 2-1 after game three. I watched a little of the end of the first half and the first several minutes of the third quarter before turning off the TV in sheer frustration. For the life of me, I can't understand the strategy of Pacers' coach Frank Vogel. He looks like a deer in the headlights. Indiana has a decisive advantage inside the paint with Hibbert and West and Miami has a gaping hole in its squad when Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal strain early in the series.

Miami, as everyone knows, is paper thin because they had to trade away players in order to afford to bring in two All Stars, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, to join Dwayne Wade. When they lost Bosh, they became very vulnerable, a vulnerability that was exposed in game 3 which the Pacers won convincingly. Yes, Wade had a bad game that day, scoring only 5 points. But even if Wade's feeling a little better, there's no reason why the Pacers should be getting beaten in this series, especially with Bosh out of the picture.

So what's wrong?

This series is an example of the dramatic difference strategy makes. If Vogel continues to condone Pacers jacking up three point shots and not pushing the ball into the paint where Indiana has the decided edge and where they can slow the game down and avoid the fast break plays that Miami does so well, then they should win this series.

But if they don't, they're going to be humiliated and lose the next game too and I'm not going to be able to stand watching the carnage any further.

Sports are a form of stylized warfare. When you go into battle with a bad or inferior game plan, then you are going to appear to be completely outmanned and your players/troops are going to think that they can't win. If you go into the fight with a superior game plan, then you are going to make the other side look foolish and your players/troops are going to gain confidence and dominate. It is that simple. You can have a better squad/army facing a weaker team/army, but if you have a bad game plan, and you squander what you have in foolish ways, you can lose to that inferior team and you can lose in a spectacular fashion. That is what has been unfolding in the last two games in this series. I don't care that LeBron and Dwayne are All-Stars. The game of basketball is a team sport and while Miami is one of the very best defensive teams this year, they are weak in the middle and they should not be winning in this manner.

Charles Barkley, who has recently been singing the praises of LeBron James as by far the best player in the world for reasons I can't understand, likes to say, "You live by the jumper, you die by the jumper." The game of basketball, just like the game of chess, turns on who dominates the center, which in basketball is the paint and in chess is the center of the board. You abandon the center for the periphery and even if your three's fall for a while, sooner or later you're going to start missing, and you are sure to lose because you're going to give up a lot of points in transition and fast break points off of the long rebounds. Play to your strengths and expose your adversaries' weaknesses. Don't play to your adversaries' strengths and fail to use your own strengths.

These truths are as valid for sports as they are for any game and any struggle, whether it's political, economic, social, or, as the famous war strategist Clausewitz put it, the extension of politics by other (violent) means: warfare. Adopt bad leadership and bad plans, and you will surely lose, no matter how strong you might be now. Base yourself, on the other hand, on a correct understanding of the situation, the actual nature of yourself, your mates, and your adversaries, and you can win, even if what you start with is very small compared to that of your adversaries.

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