Friday night’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks certainly isn’t the Pacers’ most impressive victory of the 2013-14 season, but that’s only because it came against a true bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference.
Indeed, Milwaukee isn’t home to the greatest situation or marquee superstars, as the Bucks had an offseason that consisted of trading their explosive point guard to the Detroit Pistons and losing their best player through free agency to the Dallas Mavericks. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are both in better atmospheres this season and Bucks coach Larry Drew continues to search for answers.
The Indiana Pacers outscored Milwaukee through every quarter except the third, withstanding a 9-0 run by the Bucks to open the second half. Paul George, who entered the game averaging 24.9 points per game, scored 10 points in the third quarter alone to keep the Pacers’ lead at 75-61 entering the final period. While 10 points in a quarter isn’t something that we haven’t witnessed before, it was the manner in which George was scoring that stood out the most. Mid-range jumpers — falling away, off the dribble, catch and shoot — are all becoming shots that he is comfortable with this season. That only spells disaster for potential playoff opponents in the Eastern Conference. I’m looking right at you, Miami.
George finished with 22 points on 10-of-18 shooting, but couldn’t get his perimeter shot to fall throughout the night, making just 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. In terms of his disproportionate scoring between the two halves, George explained why he’s been exploding later in games rather than earlier:
“In the first half, I let the game come to me, you know, and just take the shots that are there,” George said. “Second half, I’m much more in attack mode, trying to get in the mid-range area, trying to attack the rim. Still letting the game come to me, but I think my aggression picks up.”
Milwaukee’s highest scoring effort came from O.J. Mayo, the guard they seemed to swap for by allowing Ellis to move to Dallas. Mayo scored 20 points on 7-0f-17 shooting. In an overall dissatisfying offensive attack, the Bucks shot just 34.1 percent from the floor, but managed to connect on 50 percent of their 16 3-point attempts. Milwaukee kept statistical battles within a close margin, only losing the rebounding margin by four and recording just two more turnovers than the Pacers. In the end, they just couldn’t get to the free throw line enough with Indiana’s frontcourt playing the perfect style of verticality defense.
Besides Indiana’s definite MVP candidate, there was also another problem the Bucks had to deal with — a much larger problem. The early front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, Roy Hibbert, undoubtedly played his best game of the season on Friday. Compiling a stat line that most coaches only dream their starting center could do, Hibbert scored 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked eight shots. Let it be known that the big man had the opportunity to get the Pacers’ second consecutive triple double, however, Coach Frank Vogel pulled him from the game in preparation for the Saturday showdown at Chicago.
Hibbert’s defensive through nine games is the strongest reason as to why the Pacers are undefeated, and it’s remarkable when considering his progression since being drafted in 2008. He is now the hardest center to score against once a player enters the paint, which allows his team to surrender only 84.5 points per game. That type of defense isn’t just going to win the 7’2″ center an individual award this season, but also his team a trip to the 2014 NBA Finals if it remains consistent.
Vogel has always been the first to point out the differences Hibbert makes while he’s on the floor. After the game, he touched on how impressed he has become with his defensive assassin:
“Roy is proving night in and night out that he’s the best rim-protector in the game, and clear front-runner for best defensive player in the game,” Vogel said. “I wish I would have played him two or three more minutes, maybe he would have got a triple double.”
Besides Hibbert’s obvious dedication to putting a lid on the rim, he demonstrated Friday that his offensive game has also become magnificent. Scoring 10 points in the first quarter, Hibbert put his entire offensive arsenal on display for any doubters he may have. Posting up on the low block has become something that this team uses quite often, particularly allowing big men to draw double teams and open up shooters. Friday, however, Hibbert connected on numerous post-up hook shots near the rim and proved he can put the ball in the basket as well, if not better, than any other center in the league. In the past two years, you would have cringed if Hibbert attempted to create his own offense in the post, especially in a monumental playoff game. That is not the case this season, nor will it be in the 2014 playoffs. We are experiencing the maturity year of Roy Hibbert, a player that this organization has always been in love with.
All the talk of Hibbert was definitely leading to a comparison, everyone knows how it works.
It’s probably time that fans, as well as analysts, understand that the best center in the NBA isn’t a term or recognition that should unanimously go to Houston’s Dwight Howard. While Hibbert is right below the mark of averaging double-digits in points (9.9 points per game) and Howard is scoring 17.1 per game, Hibbert has a quality that Howard does not. The ability to keep your biggest player and best defender in the game during crunch time is incredibly vital. The problem with Howard since he entered the league in 2004-05 has always been his performance at the free throw line.
It has reached the point where opponents know they can intentionally foul Howard late in the fourth quarter, and his current 49 percent efficiency from the line (57.6 percent for his career) will ultimately give them a chance to stay alive.
The Pacers exemplify a team that can keep their best defender on the floor late in a game without having to swap him in and out every possession. Why? Roy Hibbert’s accuracy from the free throw line is terrific for a center in today’s game. Hibbert is shooting 72.4 percent from the charity stripe this season, nearly identical to his career average of 72.8 percent. Friday against the Bucks, Hibbert went 8-for-8 from the line, illustrating that he can score on you, block you at the rim, and make a defense pay when they decide to foul him.
Next up, the Pacers will take on the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on Saturday, Nov. 16th. Bulls’ superstar point guard Derrick Rose did not play on Friday against the Toronto Raptors and his status for Saturday’s anticipated battle isn’t certain. The Bulls look to be playing a bit better than they were when they visited Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Nov. 6th and tasted defeat.
With a defense as focused and locked-in as Indiana’s, it may not be a pleasant sight for Chicago to take their 26th ranked offense up against the 9-0 Pacers without their best scoring option healthy.