The Indiana Pacers are rolling. The team is soon to win the Central Division for the first time since 2004, the squad continues to churn out a devastating defensive attack, and coach Frank Vogel’s crew is back home in Indiana after an impressive road trip that saw the Pacers take games against the Rockets, Mavericks, Suns and Clippers in six days. The team has won eight of nine, only losing in a one-possession game on the road to the Bulls on the second night of a back to back.
And in anticipation of what could be a statement game, Indiana has three days “off” between Monday’s win over the Clippers and Friday’s home matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder, just a game in back of the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the West, smell blood in the water with Spurs guard Manu Ginobili out for at least the rest of the regular season. And though the Pacers are playing fantastic ball of late, the team is still tied for the second seed in the because of the New York Knicks’ impressive nine-game winning streak.
Needless to say, it’s a huge game. To everyone but ESPN, we should point out, who decided to dump the game in order to telecast Friday’s Miami Heat/Charlotte Bobcats contest; clinging to that telecast even though the Heat’s streak ended one week ago.
Eight Points, Nine Seconds’ Avi Friedman did an excellent job on Wednesday breaking down just why the Pacers turned into such a juggernaut, even by their high standards, over the course of the last two weeks. The team is not only going to a more confident Roy Hibbert down low, but the 2012 All-Star has responded with a much-improved turn on that end after a miserable start to the season.
Earlier this season he was struggling mightily with his hook shot, supposedly from a right wrist injury, and was using his left hand on the hook shot a lot more often than he had in the past. Also, he was just missing a ton of layups and continually looking off balance during many of his slooow post moves.
Since the All-Star break, however, he has gone back to the right hand more and more, and it’s been going down more and more. Now he has an effective hook shot from both hands and has added in the running hook shot, which he didn’t really have last season. He’s adding more moves to his offensive arsenal this season, resulting in him finishing five of the last 12 games with 20 or more points. (He shot 50% or better in each of those five.)
If he can average a solid 15 and 8, shooting 45% or better, throughout the playoffs, it’ll do wonders for the Pacers offense.
The first part of that block quote typified why Hibbert was such a worry earlier in 2012-13, as he shot 37 percent (remember, this is a 7-2 center that rarely strays from the paint) in November and 40 percent in December. The man appeared to have absolutely no confidence in his right hook, rushing into it without setting his feet properly and often showing hesitation on the follow-through.
The glass half-full analyst tells you that because Hibbert’s mechanics in the past have been sound, this would be a funk he would eventually work his way through. Sometimes it takes an entire season for NBA players, though. Sometimes they have one gimmick-y season field goal percentage-wise, and it takes until the next year for the RESET button to do its job. Especially for big men, who can jump out of nowhere with either a remarkable improvement or steep fall-off in field goal percentage that returns to the mean the next season.
For Hibbert, his bounce back came following a suspension that cost him his first meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers, on the last day of February. It’s true that Roy played well in the month of February, sterling defense as always with over 10 points, seven rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 27 minutes a contest – but things got real in March.
Hibbert came through with 16.5 points per game in the month, on 48 percent shooting. He pulled down 8.8 rebounds with 2.8 blocks, doing all of this in just 30 minutes a game. In the rematch-that-wasn’t with the Clippers on Monday, Roy contributed 26 points and 10 caroms, while flummoxing the Clipper offense with his defensive presence (until Hibbert fouled out in the fourth quarter). Afterwards, he hung out with some of our favorite writers/comedians. Even better, he spied ESPN’s J.A. Adande being flummoxed by a vending machine. It was a good night.
Most importantly, the quickness and timing was back. It’s true that Hibbert worked through a right wrist injury this year, but even while healthy the confidence just wasn’t there. Now Roy is moving into both Pacer sets and his own touches with economy of motion. He’ll never dunk his way to an Artis Gilmore-styled 60 percent shooting mark for a season, but as Friedman pointed out, 15 and 8 with a sound percentage in 32 minutes a night could put Indiana in a fantastic position, provided his sterling defense holds up.
Hibbert might be my top Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Even though Indiana is full of athletic and heady defenders, and they still play quite well on that end when he’s off the court, the team’s luxury of being able to funnel opponents into his general area has created one of the more underrated defensive teams of this generation.
As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton pointed out earlier on Wednesday, the difference between the first-place Pacers and second-place Memphis Grizzlies in terms of defensive efficiency is as great as the difference between the Grizzlies and eighth-place Miami Heat on that end. Think about that – it’s akin to the difference between the Miami Heat’s overall record and second-place San Antonio Spurs’ overall record being as great as the difference between the Spurs’ record and, well, the Indiana Pacers.
That’s the issue. The Pacers are amongst the NBA’s elite eight, with a drop-off behind the Pacers to the Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Bulls of the NBA. Still, they’re eighth out of that eight. Can a team that is offensively reliant on a center to shoot a percentage that we’d expect a point guard to put up from the field worthy of top-tier status? Indiana gave Miami all it could handle last season, but the Heat responded by giving the rest of the NBA all it could handle in the months since. The Pacers still have a ways to go, and it starts Friday against the Thunder.
Good thing they’ll have their ebullient center back, enjoying life on the offensive side of the court as much as he’s long enjoyed dominating it on the defensive end.