- Heat vs. Pacers: Series Hub
INDIANAPOLIS – In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man will be king, so sayeth the proverb. And in an NBA in which legitimate old-school centers are as rare as hair parts, Roy Hibbert can be a new millennium Kareem.
No offense to roundball’s royalty, but everything and everyone is relative to his time. We’re in a time when even the All-Star Game offers up three “front-court” starters per side, a white flag on the supply of legitimately talented traditional centers.
Back when true giants roamed the NBA’s courts – Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Russell, Thurmond, Lanier, Gilmore, Reed, Walton, Malone, Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, Parish (see, don’t even need first names) – Hibbert might not have cracked the Top 10. Now that they’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs, the Indiana Pacers’ big man reigns as a 7-foot-2 throwback, the biggest Komodo dragon on the block.
And don’t think the Miami Heat haven’t noticed. Two games into the Eastern Conference finals, Hibbert is averaging 24.0 points and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 57.6 percent from the floor and 83.3 percent from the foul line. Of his boards, 6.5 percent have come at the offensive end, contributing to Indiana’s 88 points in the paint through two games.
And in a series in which MVP LeBron James is a minus-4 after two games and Heat sidekick Dwyane Wade is minus-10 (for those who favor the NBA plus/minus metric), it’s worth noting that Hibbert is a plus-14.
None of which has been a surprise to Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, dating back long before Sunday’s Game 3 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (8:30 p.m ET, on TNT).
“He has a great impact,” Spoelstra said Thursday after practice. “This guy has improved dramatically.
“All of us remember what he was like four years ago on pick-and-rolls. What’s interesting about a guy like Roy Hibbert is you see young ‘bigs’ get attacked on pick-and-rolls on a nightly basis. Some players never get better. They continue on the scouting report, year after year, for a decade – ‘attack this guy.’ Roy Hibbert, every single year, has been diligent to improve that, knowing that [that is] everybody’s attack, to the point now he’s one the best pick-and-roll defenders in the league. And you don’t necessarily view him that way. [But] he has that type of impact.”
So much so, in fact, that the Heat have avoided using Hibbert’s man in its pick-and-rolls, a tactic that New York dared to try without much success. That’s no small concession from the league’s defending champions and best offense.
Oh sure, Miami scored 60 points in the paint in Game 1 and 100 so far through two games. But the most important four from the series opener came with Hibbert watching from the side, his length and rim protection – Pacers coach Frank Vogel considers him the best in the NBA at that skill – shelved on the Heat’s final two possessions.
Everyone knows how well that worked. James got in for layups twice, including the game-winner, generating both a victory and one of the NBA’s biggest frenzies of second-guessing in recent memory. Which was harmless enough, though it did assure us of a couple things for however long this series lasts:
Hibbert won’t be on the side again at the end of a tight game, unless the refs have put him there via foul calls. He and James are joined at the hip as each team’s most pivotal player.
Paul George is the open-floor counterpart to Miami’s superstar, of course. George is the budding two-way, Pippen-playalike with whom James might feel some kinship and envision future Olympic gold, hence the little hand slap after three quarters Friday night. But Hibbert is the guy past and over whom James will literally and figuratively have to lead the Heat if they’re going to make it three Finals in as many years, and two rings.
On reputation, on athletic ability, on the sheer esthetics of what the sporting public has come to expect of NBA impact players, James is quintessential. Hibbert, well, is not. He still looks ungainly running the court, still appears to be widest at the hips and seems as easy for a tough, physical defender to fold up as a beach chair.
Miami’s trying, though, with Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem and even Joel Anthony and, so far, it hasn’t worked. Hibbert’s long body, at age 26, still might be catching up, but his mental game has advanced considerably, both through his five-year career and from October till now.
He knows and has a feel for what to do with the ball when he gets it down low, either in the offense or off the glass – even if it doesn’t always seem like it. His hooks and short jumpers in traffic work for him, no matter how much they rattle around before dropping. Hibbert is a deft passer, especially on the inch-for-inch scale, and his hands have improved.
Defensively, he is one of the best at using his full length and taking advantage of the NBA’s view on “verticality,” which allows a defender to jump straight up against a driving ball handler without fear of an automatic foul call on contact. Swipes with the arms, yes, that still will draw the whistles. But Hibbert largely stays away from that, relying on his size to thwart those who test him.
His 2.6 blocks per game were the most so far in his career, and those don’t include the shots he alters in the shooters’ hands or those that never challenge him at all. As for staying on the floor, Hibbert – playing on the first year of a four-year, $58 million deal – fouled out only five times this season and not at all in this postseason.
“I always tell guys, if they get beat, don’t foul them, I’ll be there to clean it up,” Hibbert told reporters in Miami. “It’s just that I feel I’m important. I want to be on the court. That’s why they brought me back. That’s why they gave me all this money.”
And that’s why he’s getting all this attention, from both the public and the Miami game-planners.