In the second quarter of Game 1 in the case of Atlanta Hawks v. Indiana Pacers, Al Horford jumped to catch a pass over Lance Stephenson, snagged it and spun to the hoop to jam it home, screaming with power as he completed the sequence.
It was Horford's fourth basket in two and a half minutes of game play and the Hawks had narrowed the host Pacers' lead to five points. Momentum was shifting. All four of Horford's baskets came within five feet of the hoop, gashing the Pacers huge front line with his ability to take the slower Pacers off the dribble.
The Hawks best player and the heart of the team was rolling and the rest of the Hawks was coming back behind him.
30 seconds later, with 5:29 left in the first half, Stephenson would put himself in the path of a transitioning Horford around midcourt in an effort to slow the Hawks big man down. Horford would put his arm on the Pacer wingman and then Stephenson flailed wildly, enticing referee David Jones to call an offensive foul away from the ball.
It shouldn't have been a foul. I certainly shouldn't have cost Al Horford the rest of the half, but that's what it did.
It was Horford's second personal foul and Larry Drew decided the risk of Horford picking up a third foul in the first half was too great to his team's success and he benched him for the rest of the half.
Oh, the fallacies of such fraidy-cat strategery.
Some might say that, score-wise, it wasn't a big deal. Horford left down seven and the Hawks ended the half down eight. I counter by asking would the Hawks have been in an even better position with their best player on the floor instead? Horford was dominating out there and Drew acted as if nothing was happening.
As the second half played, despite the extended rest his big man had received thanks to such a careful foul accrual policy, Drew didn't change his substitution pattern at all for Horford. Horford came out with almost four minutes left to play in the quarter and only three personal fouls and the team down 14 points -- as if this were a regular season game in December instead of Game One of a playoff series.
Drew continued to keep his best defender and rebounder on the bench despite being down and needing defense and easier baskets inside. As the fourth quarter began, Horford had played only 22 minutes to that point. To play him the entire quarter would have meant at total of 34 minutes. Still, Drew kept Horford seated with his seat belt securely fastened and his tray table in the upright position until there was six and a half minutes left in the game.
The game was lost.
Larry Drew played his best player 28 minutes in a playoff game that was winnable. It's unfathomable.
And to do it -- why -- because he might get another foul in the first half and then get into real foul trouble?
By benching Horford in the first half, he likely did more damage than if he had fouled out of the game at the end. He surely would have participated and contributed more minutes if Drew had let him wade into the waters of a third personal foul in the first half.
How many less minutes would Horford had played if Drew had just let him get into foul trouble or even fouled out? Less than 28 minutes? I can't see that.
Drew, in effect, fouled Horford out of the game voluntarily -- as Horford ended the game with three personal fouls. It's such an extreme precaution that it's actually be worse than the result Drew is trying desperately to avoid.
This Hawks team isn't laden with all-stars -- it's a good team that needs all of its cylinders firing to win games. Al Horford is the biggest and most important part of any Hawks victory equation. To limit him to 28 minutes in a winnable road playoff game due to fear is wrong.
You don't get bonus points for not fouling anyone out nor do you suffer any other future consequence for allowing someone to foul out of a game.
The playoffs allow extra rest between games, too -- so it's not like playing your best players 40+ minutes will have the same effect as if your guy was averaging that during the regular season.
Drew should have played Horford long minutes in the second half given his two-foul strategy in the first half. Playing all 24 minutes would have left Horford's total at 38-39 minutes, hardly grounds for player abuse. It's an adjustment most savvy coaches would make as the game changes that way.
This is the playoffs. The best coaches know you need your biggest guns playing the most minutes to win.
Frank Vogel played Paul George 44 minutes, including almost all of the second half. Vogel gets it -- he went with his best player and rode him, despite a 3-13 shooting night. Vogel was rewarded with a win and a triple-double from George.
Larry Drew needs to swallow the imaginary fear, understand it's playoff time and ride Horford out. Otherwise, there is plenty of rest coming -- for all the Atlanta Hawks.