The NBA just might be the best league in terms of access. Although media availability has slightly scaled back this season - players need only to speak to reporters once before the game - it's still offers a committed amount of time for interviews. Specifically with head coaches, who still talk after the morning shootaround (if the team has one) and an hour or so before the tipoff.
What this means -- coaches spend a lot of time in front of cameras and voice recorders. So, they could: A. pull a Popovich and mutter one-syllable answers that reveal nothing, B. pull from a drawstring of cliches that reveal nothing or C. wisely use that time to their benefit. I believe on Wednesday night in Toronto, Dwane Casey answered 'C.'
The night started with the head coaches proving that they could have made great debate team captains in high school, and ended with some politicking from the players. Let me explain.
I don't view it as a coincidence that Pacers center Roy Hibbert just so happened to foul out during the loss to the Raptors - for only the second time in 31 games - on the same night that Casey focused on his defense and the debate around the verticality rule. There's a reason that Casey, who's in his third year with the Raptors, was just named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for December. He's a smart man, and while praising Hibbert during his pregame interview, he also dropped subtle soundbites about whether Hibbert catches a break on those plays.
"He's the best. He's one of the best in going vertical. He caused a lot of discussion in the coaches' meeting about changing the rules," Casey said, while stressing the word 'discussion.' "But a rule is a rule. If you go vertical, you can go there to infinity to cover the basketball but there was some talk about changing that rule, but in the wisdom of the league, (the NBA) stayed with it."
When I posed the question about Hibbert's defense, first phrasing it as getting "the benefit of the doubt" then muttering something semi-intelligible about having a "reputation" for playing good defense. Casey shook his head.
"You had it right. He does," Casey said, honing in on the "benefit of the doubt" part. "He has a reputation and this league is about reputation. He's one of the best at doing it. The question comes is when he follows through and comes over ...
From behind the podium, Casey then demonstrated by holding up both of his arms and angled down into an imaginary offensive player. (Now, note Casey's next words carefully. He doesn't debate on whether or not Hibbert can go straight up - he absolutely can in his airspace to defend the rim. But in Casey's eyes, it's about those times when an offensive player is attempting a shot and Hibbert may angle in - a natural reaction when there's contact.)
"...is that legal or not? That's the huge question and that was the question in the coaches' meeting. But again if you have that reputation you can get away with some of those things. I thought he impacted the entire series against Miami with that one defensive move of his, whether he comes over or not, that's the call that officials have to make."
I believe that Casey gave us reporters a preview of what he shared with the game's officials - he wanted them to watch Hibbert closely for contact. Of course, this isn't new. The "coaches' meeting" that Casey referred to was the summer gathering in Chicago when all 30 NBA head coaches discussed issues of the game. Casey portrayed Hibbert's style of defense as a hot topic in that meeting. Pacers coach Frank Vogel also remembers the discussion and still recalls the explanation that exonerated the art of verticality. (We'll use legal terms here because Vogel spoke like a defense attorney passionately representing Hibbert and his play.)
"There was just some debate about league wide… was the defender getting more of the benefit of the doubt where it used to be the offensive player (who) got the benefit of the doubt," Vogel said, recalling the coaches' meeting. "What it comes down to, what the officials are trying to say is, every defender's entitled to vertical space no matter where you are on the floor - the restricted arc means nothing to our system because we don't take charges at the rim typically. So you try to get yourself in front of the ball and take advantage of the legality of vertical space. And that was the message that the league was trying to tell everyone, there is no benefit of the doubt entitled to the defender. It's just that defenders are entitled to vertical space."
The complaints in the summer coaches' meeting have carried over to the regular season because Hibbert has often overheard rival coaches try to persuade refs against him. After all, Hibbert leads the league in personal fouls while on the road. So clearly, he doesn't get the whole "benefit of the doubt" while wearing the blue uniform. But before you start feeling too sorry for Hibbert, just know that he does a good job making his own case. During every captain's meeting at center court, Hibbert tries to inform the referees that he's about to play some good, legal defense.
"If you ask any referee before the game – they ask me if I have anything to say, I tell them 'I'm going straight up.' Every time. Every game," Hibbert said. "And they know that and they say I'm one of the best at it."
But midway through the game in Toronto, the refs did not agree with Hibbert and called him for his first foul as he raised both hands to stop a DeMar DeRozan drive. On that play, it should be noted that Hibbert was also backing up. Then the whistles kept coming: a questionable offensive foul while trying to get position against Jonas Valanciunas, a call while wrestling for a defensive rebound, another personal while jumping into Valanciunas, a loose ball foul on Tyler Hansbrough and finally a charge when Kyle Lowry wisely stepped in front of a drive that Hibbert started at the 3-point arc.
Hibbert's six fouls came on a night when the Indiana Pacers collected 27 fouls, one shy of the season high that also resulted in a loss in Portland. The Raptors made a big deal about being gritty and tough against Indiana, so after the game when I asked Paul George if the Pacers met their physicality, he used it as an opportunity to slyly get something off his chest about the officiating.
"I feel like we did and the results of that, almost 30 fouls. I never talk about officiating or anything like that but we've never had that much fouls," George said. "It's never been that difference of fouls where we've had about 30. But I guess we were too physical tonight. We'll continue our style of play, though."
When given a chance to comment on the fouls, Hibbert gave a great reaction. He smiled at the ground and chuckled in a way that said more than his words ever could. Then, he shrugged and answered.
- "We didn't get the whistles that we normally would've wanted but it doesn't go your way sometimes," Hibbert said. "We beat ourselves. We turned the ball over. We weren't doing our defensive assignments and they were the better team tonight. I can honestly say that."
So, I celebrated New Year's Day as a first-timer in Canada. For anyone familiar with crossing north of the border, this next section might bore you. So feel free to skip over the wide-eyed musings of a rookie beat reporter. But if you haven't been to Canada, let me break some news to you... pack a coat. Maybe two. And wear both of them if you dare to walk outside.
You know it's frigid when you stroll through the Pacers' locker room, send a common pleasantry George Hill's way by asking him how he's doing, and he blurts out: "Cold!" But I didn't need Hill to tell me. It was minus-15 there and I clumsily learned this cold hard fact while trying to walk to the arena from my hotel - without a hat and gloves. Yes, I left both back in Indiana, clearly under the impression that nobody really needs warm winter clothing in sub zero temperatures. So after the short walk through the freezer of Antarctica, it only took 20 minutes for the feeling in my fingers to return.
Obviously, I need some tips from native Torontonians - some of whom actually stood in the cold to watch the 2014 Winter Classic between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings on the jumbotron outside of Air Canada Centre. Either that's insanity or devotion. Maybe a little bit of both. And here's some more breaking news: hockey is huge up there. It wasn't just the folks standing outside to watch the game that revealed this to me, it was a radio commercial I heard in the car. I'm not kidding at all here, this is how the commercial goes:
An actor portraying a sports radio talk show host takes a call and asks the guest: "What did you think of our goalie last night? Should he even be our goalie?" And the caller meekly responds by saying that he doesn't know, and all he feels like doing is crying. Then cue the dramatic music and soothing voiceover for the big reveal. It's a mental health commercial.
Yes, in Canada, an advertiser actually paid for and produced a commercial about mental health by using the device of a man who's so sad that he can't even talk about hockey. Let that sink in for a bit. And I thought Indiana loved it's basketball - clearly not as much Canada digs hockey