INDIANAPOLIS – Paul George is having a breakout season, a Most Improved trophy winner improving his game all over again to barge into discussions for the next level of superstar hardware.
But George wasn’t the pivotal player for the Indiana Pacers in their 90-84 victory over the Miami Heat Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Roy Hibbert was. And it figures to stay that way through three more regular season meetings and however many times the teams hook up in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Keeping things parallel, then, if not literal, Miami’s most pivotal player as this slugfest for East supremacy plays out might not end up being LeBron James, its MVP in residence. The guy sitting behind the Heat bench Tuesday night in the blue jacket – Greg Oden – might wind up rating that status.
It’s a big might or if or maybe or whatever conditional set-up you choose to use, because Oden hasn’t played an NBA game in more than four years, dating back to Dec. 5, 2009. His knee zippers have zippers, and surgeons set up an honor bar in one of them, anticipating their next visit. The 7-footer from Ohio State and Lawrence North High in Indianapolis, one of the league’s most unfortunate and frustrating stories in recent memory, has logged a total of 82 games since he went No. 1 in the 2007 Draft. He has missed five times that number.
But as Hibbert kept throwing in buckets over the top of the Miami defense (24 points on 10-for-15 shooting) and altering not just shots but the Heat’s strategy and identity at the other end, Oden – project player and two-year, $2.2 million gamble – became conspicuous in his seat for his possible late-season involvement.
After The Game That Wasn’t A Statement, James flashed a hopeful look as he contemplated the possibility of Oden as a Hibbert counter. Not next week when they meet again in south Florida but in March. Or April. Or best of all, May.
“We’re not the team that we want to be in April right now, and that’s OK,” James said, after Miami asserted itself in the first half against Indiana, then got a little casual when things unraveled on it in the second. “That’s exactly what we want. We want to continue to get better.”
Might Oden figure into that plan?
“We hope so,” James said. “We hope so.”
And guess what? Hibbert hopes so too. At the moment, he is literally and figuratively the biggest X-factor in the matchups between these teams.
Offensively, he works old-school from the low post like few current NBA centers, a cockeyed change of attack point and style as disconcerting for opponents as Seattle’s pesky old switch-everything defense under George Karl, especially when encountered randomly during a long season. Miami deals with all manner of open-court and wing players like George. It showed in the first half it can swarm and choke him off the way it has other dynamos like Chicago’s Derrick Rose or Jeremy Lin at the height of Linsanity. Hibbert’s size, though, makes him a rarity.
Defensively, he long has been planted not just in the Heat players’ peripheral vision but in their heads, especially now that NBA officiating crews seem to grant him “verticality” calls the way Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant used to own rip-throughs. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a member of the privileged class like James or Dwyane Wade banging into him 10 feet above the court .
Still, for all that advantage, the Pacers’ big man sounded eager to face whatever XXXL card the two-time champions have stashed up their sleeves (sleeves, for the record, is legit phraseology now in this alternative-jersey world).
“I’m gonna just keep asserting myself whenever I play against them,” Hibbert said. “But I’m really looking forward to matching up against Greg when he does play. He’s such a big impact, a big impressive presence. When he gets healthy, we can battle a little bit.”
Oden, Miami insiders say, continues to work out pain-free, participating partially in Heat practices with an eye on game involvement at some point in the season’s second half. He was signed largely for a possible playoff matchup with Hibbert, who expects to see him later if not sooner, assuming Oden a) gets on the court and stays on the court, and b) plays like some reasonable facsimile of his former self.
“At some point this year,” Hibbert said late Tuesday. “I’m not saying ‘Hey, I’m gonna go kick somebody’s ass.’ I always say I can play against the best. Joakim Noah brings the best out of me. Playing against LaMarcus Aldridge. And y’know, Greg is such a dynamic image … I’ll see.”