Following the disappointing loss to the Phoenix Suns, who looked as if they were an offensive juggernaut posting 124 points on the stout Indiana Pacers’ defense, there may have been a bit of overreaction by fans (and even critics) of Frank Vogel’s East-leading group.
With a team that is 33-8 on the season, some would be quick to point out that it was just one of those “bad nights” for Indiana.
Those pundits are correct in some sense. As the frenzy and excitement of an NBA season progresses, everyone is certainly guilty of forgetting, for that split second or two, that this is a 82-game grind. From the words of Phil Jackson in the 1990’s era of coaching the Chicago Bulls, the season is a marathon … not a sprint.
For heaven’s sake, its always been rare to even find NFL teams (who only play a 16 game schedule) that remain consistent in their play, whether it be at home or on the road. Have fans’ expectations these days really escalated to the point where the NBA’s best can’t have one or two off nights without facing heavy scrutiny? Just some interesting thoughts to ponder as the next three months unfold for the league’s top teams in their respective conferences.
In Indiana’s case, however, there are some nagging issues that aren’t just on the uprise; they’ve been points of emphasis all year long.
Roy Hibbert is becoming known as the foremost rim protector in basketball, although Pelicans’ forward Anthony Davis wouldn’t like to put it in those terms. Both are highly anticipating to see their names on the All-Star Reserves list next Thursday as well, giving Hibbert his second All-Star appearance of his career.
On nights that the 7’2″ Georgetown alumnus sets his heart out to get interior stops, the Pacers excel, rarely even allowing triple digits by the opposing team.
Instances such as Wednesday’s loss, however, force you to second guess how much of a difference Hibbert can make against a Miami Heat team that has cashed in all their chips on Greg Oden for the playoffs. It sounds unhinged right now, but not out of the question, considering the confidence Miami’s new experiment proves to occupy.
Of the eight losses Indiana currently has on the season, five of them featured Hibbert struggling in multiple fashions.
Most recently, Jan. 22 at Phoenix, Hibbert scored just six points and grabbed four rebounds, while shooting 3-of-8 from the field. It also marked the third time this season that Hibbert fouled out of the ballgame. His presence wasn’t a large factor for Phoenix, as the Suns contained him by forcing Vogel to go to his bench throughout the whole game. Phoenix outscored Indiana in points in the paint, something that has transcended as one of the hardest tasks when Hibbert is on his A-game.
On Jan. 8 in Atlanta, Hibbert failed to be a game changer, posting his worst individual performance of the season. He scored two points on 1-of-8 shooting, secured four rebounds, blocked one shot, and didn’t manage to get to the free throw line at all. Indiana chucked up the loss, 97-87, and Hibbert took full blame afterwards.
Dec. 18 was one of the more bizarre meetings with the nemesis Miami Heat, since Hibbert didn’t have the opportunities to display any of his offense. Or defense, for that matter. Hibbert was once again in foul trouble down in South Beach, having to sit during critical moments in which Indiana attempted to hold on to the lead and seal the win. Nonetheless, during his 23 minutes he only looked for his offense a handful of times, finishing with six points on just 2-of-3 shooting. Against Erik Spoelstra’s 30th ranked rebounding team in the league, Hibbert managed to grab only two boards and block one shot. Let’s hope the next meeting with the defending champs will be more reminiscent of the Dec. 10 matchup in Indianapolis.
The night directly before Hibbert disappeared in Miami, another head-scratching performance came in the team’s only home loss, against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 17. In his second worst shooting performance (percentage wise) of the season, Hibbert converted on just 2-of-12 shots from the field, for two points total in the loss. He wasn’t in any critical foul trouble, and logged 35 minutes for the game. Matched up with the young, freakishly athletic frontcourt of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, and Josh Smith, Hibbert was only able to grab four rebounds, as the Pacers were out-rebounded 55-to-40 in total. Safe to say that margin on the boards hasn’t occurred for Indiana since.
Tied for the largest defeat the Pacers have suffered this season (24 points), the Oklahoma City Thunder also exposed somewhat of a weakness in Indiana’s frontcourt. Kevin Durant (36 points on 14-of-23 field goals) and a healthy Russell Westbrook (26 points on 11-of-17 field goals) may have manifested that this ‘unbreakable’ Pacers’ defense can’t handle a scoring champion on top of the most athletic point guard in NBA history. Hibbert had a fine offensive showing, scoring 12 points and nailing 50 percent of his attempts. However, the intensified “this is my house” attitude did not show up in Chesapeake Bay Energy Arena, and Paul George was forced to make up for it by looking to enter a scoring battle with the “Slim Reaper.” When you are the defensive stalwart behind the top ranked defense, the Thunder shouldn’t necessarily be able to finish the game shooting 61 percent as a team. Not all on Hibbert, but you can get the picture of how paramount his full defensive activity can be.
What do four of these five losses have in common?
Road games can be troublesome for Hibbert, at times.
That’s not to say the Pacers don’t always bring it when they travel, because for the most part, they do. This season, we have been accustomed to seeing the Pacers succeed in a vast majority of arenas, sitting at a road record of 12-7 and home record of 21-1. It shows maturity that this team has elevated past the record the coaching staff even expected at the beginning of training camp.
Turnovers also serve as a prime example of troubles that could haunt Indiana as the season winds down. The Pacers currently average 15.5 turnovers per game, which is extremely too high for a team that thrives on their defense to win a championship. Of the bottom eight teams in the turnover department (76ers, Warriors, Rockets, Bulls, Bucks, Lakers, Thunder, Pacers), you see potentially four contenders to make it to the Finals. However, Indiana is the one team of the four that isn’t known for lighting up the scoreboard for 120 on any given night. They can’t continue to throw away possessions.
Point guard George Hill followed Wednesday’s loss to Phoenix with a clever statement that every basketball aficionado should remember:
“We spoil you guys with great defense,” George stated, “so when you do have a bad game you think the world is going to end.”
Frank Vogel’s young, budding team will certainly live and die by what Roy Hibbert is able to produce in the paint come playoff time. Just don’t be too quick to jump on his case when the best record in the NBA still remains in Indianapolis.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.