The Pacers’ most hyped regular season game of the decade is now in the books, and you would have had to miss all 48 minutes to not believe it lived up to the late-March moment.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat rolled into the media-infused Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday evening, hoping to snap out of their inconsistent funk and close the gap with the Indiana Pacers for the Eastern Conference one seed. Miami entered the showdown with a 7-7 March record, just four days removed from a vile loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. The loss to the sophomore stud, Anthony Davis, sparked vocalization among James and Chris Bosh that captured the team’s attention, and revealed the panic meter many were hesitant to push. Following that up with a crunch time victory over the reeling Portland Trail Blazers, Erik Spoelstra believed his two-time defending champions were ready for round three of the East’s best rivalry.
Miami was prepared for the game itself …. just not the 7’2″ mammoth in the middle.
Since the Big 3 assembled in South Beach, there has only been one “Heat stopper” in the league. His name is Dirk Nowitzki, who wasn’t losing to anyone in the 2011 postseason, no matter who you threw at the Mavericks. Although Miami has advanced to three straight NBA Finals, the last Eastern Conference Finals war became the coming out party for Roy Hibbert, the newest viable threat to the Heat’s frontcourt.
Last May, Hibbert had zero remorse against the frontcourt led by Bosh and Chris Anderson, scoring 22.1 points and grabbing 10.4 rebounds per game in the seven contests. Not only was it enough for worrisome analysis on Miami’s interior defense, but it had a negative impact on Hibbert’s short term future. At least, that’s what we’ve learned through majority of the 2013-14 season.
Hibbert’s play in the near championship run resulted in one of the largest effects in sports; it raised our expectations …. to a stupendous degree.
Defensively, it didn’t take a lot of studying to anticipate Indiana’s rim guardian placing himself in the running for Defensive Player of the Year honors, which he’s been involved with since the season tipped. That offensive package in the playoffs vastly overrated Hibbert, to the point where ESPN’s panel of voters deemed the “big dog” as the 22nd overall NBA talent.
Naturally as humans, witnessing failure to live up to said expectations ignited the negative criticism.
And Hibbert supplied us with enough fuel to do so, especially in the beginnings of the New Year.
In more recent matters, the loss last Wednesday to the playoff hungry New York Knicks provided brief confidence that Hibbert would get Indiana’s offense back to a respectable level. This core unit has never been a formidable bunch on that end, so using that term is out of the question. When the offense became stale and Paul George became a gun firing blanks, Hibbert did his form of demanding the ball in the paint, and scored 14 points on Phil Jackson’s newest defense in the third quarter. His 20 total points didn’t follow through as a savior for the Pacers, as they dropped another road loss.
How did he follow up the individual performance?
About as ugly as Lance Stephenson’s fourth quarter ejection that warranted face palms.
In the next three matchups — two with Chicago, one with Memphis — the deprivation of offense re-appeared, with Hibbert shooting 5-of-20 from the field (25 percent) and averaging just 6.3 points. Rebounding — particularly on offensive possessions — is an entire different discussion with Hibbert’s game, but in the 11-point loss to Memphis, he stayed on the floor 21 minutes due to foul trouble, and put up a doughnut hole in the rebounding column, to go along with four points on five attempts.
Visiting the toughest group of guys in the league, Tom Thibodeu’s stout Bulls that nobody wants to see in the postseason, Hibbert came up empty from the field, with his only three points being generated from the charity stripe.
Here’s where most critics are getting it wrong, however. Full accountability can’t be placed on Hibbert’s shoulders, considering this team was rightfully accused of settling for unnecessary jump shots relatively early in shot clocks, and losing their passion for moving the ball on offense. As of late, Hibbert hasn’t had the full benefits of being in a well-orchestrated offense that focuses on an inside-out play style, which can be proven by the type of shot selection George and the wings have allowed this team to have in March. The ball stopped moving, after November and December showed us poetry in motion, and Hibbert was no longer fully able to absorb defenses in the paint to eventually kick to the perimeter.
Against Miami, they’ve learned to feed the ball to their easiest offensive mismatch, and let Hibbert do the rest.
On Wednesday, it worked, early and often.
Signing Greg Oden this offseason to serve as the answer for Indiana’s clear cut advantage at center, the Heat finally had their first chance to show why the Indianapolis native would be the piece that neutralizes the competition.
The results likely found Larry Bird laughing next to Kevin Pritchard, as Hibbert had a full course dinner on the Miami big in the opening stages of the game.
And then dessert.
Hibbert scored 13 of his 21 points in the first quarter, finishing on 6-of-8 attempts, including a 3-point play under the rim.
Oden, the 7’0″, 275 pound center, was still no answer for Hibbert’s post up action, or quickness in making a move off a face-up situation. I know, it sounds absurd that Hibbert would be associated with “quickness,” but it allowed for an easy two points due to Hibbert getting a first step advantage on Oden in one instance. While it’s widely believed Oden wasn’t planned to play high minutes, he only saw the floor for six on Wednesday, all of which he gave no indication that he’ll be able to prevent Hibbert’s deep post position.
It’s almost as if Indiana saves their most effective offensive play calls for when they square off with Miami. More Hibbert pick-and-roll action would be ideal, against defenses that aren’t capable of stopping it consistently. Starting Oden and Bosh in the front court is the option that gives Miami a chance to match up accordingly, but even then, it’s not alarming to the Pacers:
Here, Hibbert slides up to the perimeter to set a ball screen for George, which turns out to be completely beneficial for himself off the roll.
James, who can’t afford to defend it lightly because George’s speed and quickness would destroy Oden off the dribble, fights through and tries to stick to his assignment.
The play works to perfection, as it draws Oden over for help, since he realizes James’ progress would be slowed. The double attraction allows for an ideal situation for Indiana, who creates the same mismatch that they loved to exploit in last season’s Conference Finals. George’s play making resulted in a textbook pass — behind the back between the two screen defenders — that gave Hibbert a perfect opportunity.
It’s visible why Hibbert was overly eager for the final stages of the play, as all he had to deal with after receiving the pass was the undersized Bosh, which can probably be classified as a advantageous matchup for the center. Perfect timing, with perfect execution — a reverse layup that also drew a whistle — left James with his hands on his hips, sensing that it’s virtually impossible for them to stop Indiana’s weapon when he gets the ball so deep in the low post.
“[Hibbert] was catching it too deep, and then obviously we weren’t giving any kind of resistance,” Spoelstra said after the 23-17 first period advantage for Indiana. “He was getting into his comfort zone. We weren’t getting to what we like to do, and that’s make them uncomfortable.”
The only time Hibbert appeared “uncomfortable” is when he took a King sized elbow to the chin by James with 8:47 remaining in the fourth quarter. James claimed it was unintentional, because he’s not a “Kung fu master.”
He’s got a point, considering the chin he nailed belonged to the one with most of the opening blows. Hibbert didn’t need to be involved with the bickering, flagrant activity, taunting, or extra curricular activity. While he didn’t put the game away and didn’t outshine the small forward stars, he completed his task. Better yet …. he completed our task.
The task that we all encounter when trying to find valuable reasons why Indiana can advance to the June promise land. Hibbert validated that it’s not egregious for one to choose this team over the reigning champions. If the frequent horrible performances come to an end and this Roy Hibbert suits up in every playoff series, Indiana’s locker room just may finally taste the champagne.