INDIANAPOLIS — For the second time in the conference semifinals series between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, Indy center Roy Hibbert was the best player on the floor. And this time, he didn’t block a single shot. In fact, he barely contested any. And he had fewer defensive rebounds (four) than any of the Pacers’ other four starters.
Now, let’s get this straight. It’s not like Hibbert didn’t have a defensive impact in the Pacers’ 82-71, Game 3 victory. It was New York’s second-lowest scoring output of the season. The Knicks’ three 3-pointers and 11 3-point attempts were both season lows. And the 7-foot-2 center obviously had a lot to do with that.
But guess what? The Pacers are the best defensive team in the league. This is what they do. They don’t double team and they stay at home on New York’s shooters. The Knicks have now attempted 20 or fewer threes in seven games this season, and three of the seven were against Indiana.
So while Hibbert was as much of a rim protector as he’s been all year and Paul George deserves a ton of credit for his defense on Carmelo Anthony in Game 3, it was Hibbert’s work on the offensive end of the floor that made the difference in what was a very ugly 48 minutes of Eastern Conference playoff basketball. Emphasis on the word “work.”
Remember Hibbert’s brutal offense at the start of this season? Through Dec. 31, he was shooting 39 percent, with the free throw rate of a pass-first point guard. Though he was the most critical part of the Pacers’ No. 1 defense, he wasn’t exactly living up to the max contract extension he received last summer.
Hibbert will never be mistaken for Hakeem Olajuwon in the post. He’s neither quick nor smooth. But his offense is getting better. He averaged 16.7 points on 50 percent shooting in March and April. He scored at least 14 points in six of the Pacers’ first seven playoff games.
And in Game 3 of the conference semifinals, a game in which the league’s leading scorer played 37 minutes, Roy Hibbert had more points than anybody.
Hibbert looked comfortable in the low post, using his height to launch jump hooks with either hand over Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin. He made quick decisions and he even took Chandler off the dribble from the elbow a couple of times. He was a true post presence, creating his own offense, not really benefiting from his teammates’ penetration.
“He made some good moves down low,” Chandler said, “but we were supposed to trap him when he got the ball, and we didn’t do that.”
Still, the Knicks forced the Pacers to shoot just 35 percent and commit another 17 turnovers. Their primary defense was pretty good. But a defensive possession doesn’t end until the rebound is secured. And that was the difference on Saturday.
Both teams shot 35 percent. The Knicks had two fewer turnovers and two more free throw attempts. But their 3-point shooting was absent and they got beat up on the glass.
It helped that the Knicks were double-teaming (well, except when they weren’t, according to Chandler) and leaving themselves vulnerable underneath. But they were the fourth best defensive rebounding team in the league in the regular season, even though they rarely had two bigs on the floor at the same time.
The Pacers were the league’s fourth best offensive rebounding team, and that ranking has clearly held up better in this series. They’ve totaled 20 second-chance points in each of their two wins, and they already have more offensive rebounds in the three games (36) than Boston had in its six playoff games against New York (31).
Size matters. The Pacers are the bigger team and they’re showing it. Hibbert is leading the way with 16 of those 36 offensive boards, eight of them in Game 3.
“He got a lot of his stuff just out of pure effort on the offensive glass,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We know he’s going to dominate on the defensive end. When he has offensive production like he did tonight, then we’re pretty good.”
They’re pretty good and they’re now up 2-1.