By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
There is a particular reason why the Chicago Bulls have mourned the absence of All-Star point guard Derrick Rose and, in healthier times, felt confident about their chances against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat:
Center and point guard. The two positions where Miami has seemed most vulnerable through its three-Finals, two-titles reign over the NBA. And the two positions where the Bulls, with Rose and Joakim Noah (even before Noah’s blossoming in 2013-14), held distinct match-up advantages.
And then there are the Indiana Pacers, where center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill have embodied and driven – in an especially vicious circle these days – their team’s struggle against the Heat specifically and in the season’s stretch drive generally.
Hibbert is the one taking most of the grief, an obvious lightning rod given his stature literally and in Indiana’s preferred scheme of things. He’s a 7-foot-2 center who has come up about 4-foot-11 of late, shrinking at the task of nailing down the East’s top playoff berth.
Over the past 10 games, Hibbert has averaged 9.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 32.9 percent, all south of his expected numbers. His decline since the All-Star break is nothing short of alarming – from offensive and defensive ratings of 104 and 95 through his first 52 games, to 91 and 106 over the past 27.
And the past week went by almost without so much as a ping from the Pacers’ missing aircraft carrier: A nightmarish nine minutes, scoreless and without rebounds in a blowout loss to Atlanta. A game in street clothes in Milwaukee as part of coach Frank Vogel‘s rattle-whatever-cage-remains decision to sit out his starters. And just five points and one rebound in nearly 34 minutes in the smackdown in Miami, with the Heat taking apparent glee in finally solving their Hibbert headaches.
Hill, the team’s unassertive point guard – and one of the NBA’s few where “playmaker” can be subbed in as a synonym to mix up the phrasings – has been just as disappointing in the Pacers’ desperation to stop their swoon. Averages of 8.3 points and 3.4 assists, while hitting 42.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and 69.2 percent of his free throws.
He, too, has stepped into an open elevator shaft post-All Star break in some of the advanced metrics: true-shooting percentage down from 57.9 to 53.3, and a combo drop in offensive and defensive ratings from 117/98 to 110/112. If those were blood pressure numbers, the Pacers’ title hopes already would be dead.
All of this is a way of pointing out how challenging the Pacers’ matinee game against Oklahoma City (1 p.m. ET, ABC) figures to be Sunday. The gap between NBA Most Valuable Player favorite Kevin Durant and Indiana’s Paul George, a likely fourth- or fifth-place finisher, already is vast enough. But for Hill, matched up with the Thunder’s angry young man at the point, Russell Westbrook, it will be all he can do to hang on defensively, offense – no matter how badly Indiana needs a fix there – be danged.
For Hibbert, facing low-center-of-gravity Kendrick Perkins, relentlessly active Serge Ibaka and fundamentally sound Nick Collison is no way to get his game healthy. Last Sunday against the Hawks, Hibbert made Pero Antic look like Dave Cowens in his prime and had Pacers peeps excusing the (ahem) tough match-up. At Miami Friday, it was old reliable Udonis Haslem staying low, beating Hibbert to his spots and pushing him around to exploit that flamingo-like base the Pacers center seems to set.
Hill, George and the other Indiana players aren’t absolved when Hibbert struggles, either, given their lackadaisical entry passes and tendency seemingly to look away from the big man rather than establish him in the paint. Maybe they’ve grown tired of his soft left-handed hook shots and mid-range jumpers that rattle out, when what they crave is a nasty, rim-attacker who utilizes his greatest asset.
All in all, with the East’s No. 1 seed still remarkably in play, what might have teased at a potential Finals showdown – OKC vs. IND – looks more like a contender facing a calamity.