CHICAGO – Tom Thibodeau called it a train wreck. Frank Vogel, though, took the high road, so to speak, talking about the collision near the basket, near the end of the Indiana Pacers’ 80-76 victory over Chicago at the United Center, as a “fundamental of verticality.”
It just so happened that Pacers center Roy Hibbert, exercising his verticality, sent Bulls forward Luol Deng into a position of horizontality.
Here’s the situation: Chicago trailed 78-76 with 14.1 seconds left. Deng passed inbounds to Joakim Noah, then cut backdoor on Paul George and received a pass from the Bulls center. Hibbert hurried a couple of steps across the paint to meet Deng to the right of the rim. Deng was airborne and Hibbert went up. Straight up, arms extended.
Bang! Serious body contact but no whistle. Deng went down as the crowd at United Center roared. Thibodeau threw up his arms. Hibbert wasn’t looking for a charge and didn’t get one, despite Deng’s leading elbow, but he somehow got a blocked shot. David West grabbed the ball and was fouled. Sank them both, game over.
“He’s the biggest reason why we lead the league in field-goal defense,” Vogel said a few minutes later. “He’s the best in the league at exercising the fundamental of verticality. Using his legs, getting off his feet and making a legal defensive play and earning a no-call.
“You’re allowed to jump straight up, no matter where you are, and absorb contact. When he learned that and went away from trying to draw charges like he was earlier in his career, he went from not being able to stay on the court to being one of the best defensive centers in the NBA.”
George, the best player on the floor with 34 points, said he didn’t mean to lose Deng but added: “Roy told me to send him into him. I knew I had a big back there, one of the best bigs in the league.”
Thibodeau, who vented at the officials without penalty for what little time remained, saw something different.
“In my eyes, he got wiped out,” the Bulls coach said. “I did not get an explanation. He had a layup. It was a train wreck. I’m not going to put it on the officials. A tough call went against us. We still have to get it done.”
Knowing the law of verticality and getting it enforced in the heat of the moment, on the road, might be two different things. But Vogel said he never was worried.
“It’s a legal defensive play that the refs have been honoring throughout the league with all big men,” the Pacers coach said. “It’s made the game a better game. Less guys are trying to draw charges and fall on the ground underneath athletes.”
What matters for Indiana is that one big guy is doing less of that, after seeking out charges his first couple seasons.
“Nah, I don’t take charges,” Hibbert said. “I used to, but [former Pacers big man] Jeff Foster told me it messed his back up and shaved a couple years off his career. So nah, I’m a 7-footer, I’m going to try to block a shot at the rim.”
Hibbert, who is well-known for his intensive work in the summers, focused a lot on defense with the goal of being honored for it -– for the first time -– by the league’s coaches when this season ends.
“I’m always around the rim,” Hibbert said, ” touching the man I’m guarding and still getting back. Y’know, 7-foot-2 centers from Georgetown, we always play defense.”
Hibbert didn’t need to wag a finger to make the Dikembe Mutombo connection. He isn’t quite there yet, but he is averaging 3.1 blocks (compared to 2.0 last season) and this was his 12th consecutive game with at least two rejections. The Pacers began the night No. 1, holding teams to 40.8 percent shooting, then improved by limiting Chicago to 38.4.
Said Hibbert: “That’s my staple. If my offense isn’t going, I always have to play defense. That’s not gonna slack.”