Fans of the Indiana Pacers think they have it bad.
Their team, fighting through years of agony after the Malice at the Palace, had improved to a magnitude they hadn’t earned in 13 years – a championship culture.
Not only was this group of guys – Danny Granger included – insistent on raising more than just Central Division banners, but they had developed all aspects needed to win the 16 playoff games that would bring the dream to a reality.
Defensively, it was all there. Every single bit of it. Point guards weren’t finding their way inside the paint, and when they rarely did, a 7’2″ mammoth stood at the rim, not “fatigued,” or “worn down.” Indiana flirted with history as they complied absurd defensive rating numbers, which squeezed some more praise out of me as I compared their defense to the 2008 Boston Celtics, who went on a virtual manslaughter en route to 66 wins and a 17th franchise title.
Offensively, it was more than acceptable. In fact, it was often worthy of a standing ovation. The firepower they brought against superstar-driven teams (the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, for example) was enough for any basketball expert to look for their “title favorite” crown. Scoring the ball, Indiana had a February worth remembering, averaging 101.2 points per night with a plus/minus differential of +7.6. That, combined with a tenacious Roy Hibbert, David West, and Paul George as your main line of protection, was enough to send the Miami Heat packing.
It was even enough to sweep a sub .500 Atlanta Hawks organization that wanted to give the Knicks the final playoff seed.
Living in the past gets you nowhere in life, and the present situation is miles below what we just described.
Those were your Pacers in the winter, crossing over into the beginning of 2014. While December through February brought cold temperatures, Indiana stayed as hot as the soon-to-be MVP Kevin Durant. Now, it’s been rock bottom for nearly a month. Sure, there have been glimpses of their old selves, such as the Game 2 demolition on Tuesday, but those normally don’t last very long.
Game 3’s loss in Phillips Arena sure looked to be the breaking point for President Larry Bird, as the three-time champion sat in the stands, face buried in palms. Atlanta stole another victory in the first round series, and I do consider it “stealing” because both the Pacers and Hawks gave us the ugliest first half of the playoffs so far. It was anyone’s game up until the final three minutes of play, until Jeff Teague‘s illegal three-pointer that counted forced the Pacers to give up on both ends …. especially defensively.
While it’s probably too late to save one man’s morale and chances at staying in the lineup, this could all be avoided by having at least some contribution from All-Star center, Roy Hibbert.
I don’t even want to slap the term “All-Star” next to the name. Or $15 million dollar defender. Anyone that doesn’t see the mortification in Hibbert’s production for that amount of dough is delusional.
Go ahead, call me delusional as well, for disrespecting Dwight Howard with preseason comparisons of the two. Forgive me, Superman, I learned my lesson the hard way.
Since the last time Indiana and Atlanta met in the regular season (seven games), it’s almost reached the point where the whole city is turning on the big man:
Roy Hibbert in last 7 games: 10-of-53 field goals, 3.9 points per game #15MillionDollars
— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) April 25, 2014
In an odd correlation, Hibbert’s best and worst games during that stretch didn’t feature the outcomes you would’ve guessed. In the 0-for-9 showing at home vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Pacers edged OKC right before the playoffs arrived, once again bringing the sense of “everything is fixed now!” back to the area. This society is predominantly a “prisoner of the moment” one these days, and you have to love it. Hibbert’s best performance since the deep struggle – 4-for-9 shooting in Game 1 vs. Atlanta – resulted in a team loss.
Hibbert’s offense, present or not, isn’t making a difference within the Pacers’ collapse. It’s certainly not helping, but this team has shown the poise to finish close matchups without relying on their rim protector for offense.
In Thursday’s Game 3, there was more rubbish. A lot more rubbish.
Here, in Hibbert’s first shot attempt of the night, we witness him having the proper mentality, just not the patience, confidence, or skill to finish the move. Developing position on Pero Antic is a tough feat in itself, as the Macedonian is just as strong pound-for-pound as Hibbert. Realizing much of the focus is on the perimeter (his last month made it that way), Hibbert gets set in an area he’s comfortable with, and pleads with David West to let him use his height over Antic. The problem he runs into (similar to all his recent struggles), is that he’s forcing the jump hook, and rushing it.
It’s looking as if Hibbert is literally determined to get back to the moves that worked for him earlier in the year against the likes of Milwaukee, New York, Brooklyn, etc., except he should realize he’s not the type of player that can get going by forcing the issue. With these, it’s not coming to him, and that just adds to the mental strain when he’s not even drawing the rim.
Above, we see exactly the type of shots Atlanta isn’t worried about. In the regular season, Hibbert shot 40.4 percent on his shots from 15 to 19 feet from the rim, but an 8-seeded underdog has to dare Hibbert to beat them with it.
Hibbert drilled it, probably by sheer luck, but in other instances that Hibbert has been given freedom along the perimeter, it hasn’t been for children’s eyes:
Just when we thought Hibbert couldn’t make more head-scratching choices, that came in the third quarter. With an abundance of space after catching Paul George’s pass, Hibbert has to make something happen with less than five seconds on the shot clock. When he decides not to pull the 16 footer, he dribbles further in, drawing attention from feisty, aggressive DeMarre Carroll. This made for a tougher contested shot for Roy, which ended up affecting his rhythm. The result got the Atlanta crowd excited. You’re much more comfortable with Luis Scola and David West in those situations, being the first of many indicators that Hibbert doesn’t need to be on the floor against these Hawks. It’s not a knock to Hibbert’s skill, that’s where people have to calm down. It’s adjusting to the defense.
Take a gander at how Atlanta is choosing to play with George looking for penetration or one-on-one post-ups:
George can’t take Carroll down on the right block — where he could do damage — without drawing help from Antic, who is completely careless of the outside threat with Hibbert on the floor.
It doesn’t take an NBA guru to know that you’ll give Hibbert this shot over and over again, and it increases your chance of going up 2-1 in the series. This doesn’t happen with West and Scola on the floor as a tandem, which just pushes stronger for the lineup of George, Scola, West, C.J. Watson, and Lance Stephenson getting extended time to test the waters vs. Atlanta. It’s up to Vogel to give it a try, and he’s giving no indication to let Hibbert take a seat for Game 4.
Here, Hibbert becomes so much of a liability on offense that Antic completely loses him while being cautious of a George Hill slash to the rim. Thus, Hibbert gets free and is able to take advantage of the 6’7″ Kyle Korver, who didn’t have a prayer at blocking the big man this time. It’s to the point where Hibbert is scoring (four points!) just because guys are ignoring his presence on the court.
For that, it has manifest to coach Vogel just how grueling this series is going to get moving forward. Hibbert has two solutions.
Since Vogel stated he will “probably” start for Game 4, Hibbert can decide to play like a man, instead of a lost wanderer that has to take what defenses give him. Max-contract players would take that to heart if they knew how much their offense was costing the team a playoff series.
Or, there’s the more disciplined, sense of urgency move. Vogel can give Scola, who’s averaging 13 points per game on 51.6 percent shooting in the series, more minutes with West on board. Antic and Millsap have thoroughly enjoyed the perimeter game over the inside attack ALL season long, so why not put guys on the floor that are capable of defending it ….. and then fighting fire with fire?
After all, not every team is beaten by the old-fashioned, “we’re bigger than you” offensive attack. Not these Atlanta Hawks.