Paul George may be the Indiana Pacers’ MVP candidate, but time and time again it has been proven that Pacer center Roy Hibbert is the team’s literal most valuable player. This was more than evident last week, when Hibbert was the dominant go-to force on both ends in Indiana’s comeback win over the Miami Heat, and it was certainly evident in Miami tonight. Hibbert was hampered by foul trouble all night, leading to diminished returns from Indiana as the defending champs came back from 15 points to win by a 97-94 score.
Pacer coach Frank Vogel, after years of watching Hibbert grow from a foul-prone youngster into a Defensive Player of the Year-level star, made the curious decision to leave the big man on the court even after he picked up his fourth foul just minutes into the second half. Hibbert, who has lowered his fouls per 36 minutes from 7.7 in his rookie season to just 3.6 this year, then picked up his fifth foul with the Pacers up nine points with eight and a half minutes to go in the third, and had to sit for the majority of the second half.
The Pacers eventually built the lead back up to 15, but Miami’s move to a bigger lineup eventually wore on Indiana. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra ran reserve center Chris Andersen alongside Chris Bosh, while LeBron James’ penetration and Miami’s constant movement allowed the Heat to come back and eventually secure the win.
If anything, the Pacers missed Hibbert offensively as much as they did on the defensive end. Though Roy is not known for his work in the post, he was the go-to scorer for Indiana in last week’s win over Miami, notching 24 points on 10-15 shooting as the Pacers consistently went to him in the second half. Though reserve center Ian Mahinmi did well to contribute defensively in the first half when Hibbert sat with foul trouble, he did not have the same impact on that end in the second half as Mahinmi was unable to deter LeBron and Dwyane Wade from either penetrating or posting up, and he clanged two jumpers badly when the Heat’s defense left him alone.
Rested and springy, Wade mixed his efficient post-up game with a series of penetration drives on his way to a team-high 32 points on 15-25 shooting. The mark was a season-high for Wade, who has battled lingering knee issues all year while sitting out certain games to rest in anticipation of his fourth long playoff run in as many years. Pacer guards Lance Stephenson and George Hill did well to beat Wade to his spots and battle him in the post, but there was just no stopping the crafty veteran as he put the team on his back offensively.
James was the pivotal force, though, as the Heat came back and eventually took the lead. His ability to put the top-ranked Pacer defense on its heels with his initial penetration, coupled with Miami’s constant action away from the ball, left Indiana flummoxed even after a rusty Hibbert emerged from the Pacer bench. Finishing with 24 points, seven assists and nine rebounds, James overcame a third quarter bench spat with Heat guard Mario Chalmers to hoist the team with Hibbert sitting.
Indiana, once again, did itself no favors with its inability to hang onto the ball. Miami’s defense is to be credited (though the Pacers whiffed on several makeable looks as Miami whiffed on their own end defensively for the first three quarters), the Pacers still turned the ball over 14 times – a killer in such a low possession game. Indiana had a chance to take the lead in the final minute while down one, but James anticipated a San Antonio Spurs-styled dish to the baseline for Paul George, as George Hill’s pass was off, with LeBron gathering his third steal of the evening.
Though the Pacers just about played Miami to a draw, the team has to be frustrated with letting this one slip away. There should be no shame in losing to the champs in front of their slow-arriving crowd, but the idea that Indiana had a chance to pull out its second-straight win over Miami, even with Roy Hibbert playing less than half the game, has to enervate Frank Vogel’s team. At this point in this rivalry – and yes, after two straight postseason tangles and another one likely on its way, this is a rivalry – there are no moral victories. Only crushing defeats.
For Miami? The team has learned it can pair size with size, as a frontcourt featuring LeBron James, Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh helped wrest the game away from Indiana’s clutches.
Of course, it always helps if the biggest player in the arena is sitting on the bench for most of the game.
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