The Pacers are an interesting team. They are arguably the league’s best defensive team, and yet they have not a single player on the roster who finished higher than 8th in defensive player of the year voting. Not that anyone in the Pacers front office cares, especially after how the team played in Game 3 versus the Knicks on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A strong performance by Roy Hibbert helped facilitate a 82-71 win, which now has the Pacers up 2-1 in the series.
If there is any criticism to be leveled against Hibbert it is that he failed to block a single shot. But then again, it’s not as if the Knicks came anywhere close the rim, so it probably didn’t matter. What did matter is that Hibbert did everything his team needed to stay in control of the series, things like scoring in the paint and rendering Knicks center and former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler a non-factor.
Hibbert’s dominance in the paint was a big reason why the normally prolific 3-point shooting of the Knicks looked more like a mirror image of the typically conservative Pacers. Whereas the Knicks eked out just 11 attempts from beyond the 3-point line, the Pacers shot 10-for-33—talk about trading places. Indeed, Hibbert excelled at both ends of the court.
Recall that last summer the Portland Trail Blazers offered Hibbert a $58 million contract which, at the time, seemed like a lot for a 25 year-old, with fewer than 300 professional games on his resume. After all, 7-foot players can take years to fully mature as players, if ever. But Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard knew what he had in Hibbert as a player and decided he was willing to take that risk. The Pacers essentially extended a carbon copy of the deal Portland offered. It was both shrewd and pragmatic.
“We weren’t worried,” Paul George said. “We knew Roy would come around.”
George Hill was quoted as saying “I think his impact on the offensive end opened up thirty 3-point shots for us.” And if anyone would know it is Hill. He was responsible for 12 of those 33 attempts, and made 5 of them.
“When everybody was talking about his contract, I thought it was starting to creep in on his psyche,” West said. “I thought folks were putting a little bit too much pressure on him and he was putting too much pressure on himself to perform at a certain level. He just wanted to show his growth, his improvement and that he was worth it.”
“I do a lot of thinking,” Hibbert said in the interview room. “And the mantra I had today was, ‘Tonight was going to be my night.'”
But it’s not as if what Hibbert did on Saturday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse was something new. Earlier in the regular season he showed glimpses of what was yet to come, like the 11 blocks he had in November versus the Pelicans. But it seemed every strong performance was followed by 3 or 4 disappointing performances. There were too many games where he shot 1-for-6, 2-for-11 or 1-for-5, too many games with just a few rebounds and very little impact on the game.
Don’t forget that the Pacers were essentially a sub-.500 tram for the first several weeks of the season, and didn’t really rise above that mark until Hibbert finally stated coming into his own sometime in mid-December.
“When we started off a little shaky losing some games and people were putting the sole blame on him, I thought he handled it in the best way possible,” West said. “He stayed persistent in his work, trusted his work and trusted his preparation and as you see, he turned the corner. … He was just mature about it and he wasn’t in denial about his play and wasn’t looking to blame the offense, how we played and things of that nature. He took it square in the chest.”
It’s funny to watch the Pacers be so effective against an offensive team like the Knicks, who led the league in 3-point attempts and were top-10 in 3-point percentage. On Saturday, they couldn’t do anything from outside the arc, as the Pacers held them to 35 percent shooting. What’s more, the Knicks had the league’s best turnover differential during the regular season. On Saturday, they turned it over 15 times, for a total of 18 points. And yet not a single player was seriously considered for defensive player of the year. (George finished 8th in voting and Hibbert 10th.)
West remarked on Hibbert’s 10th place snub, “I don’t know if he’s completely motivated by that. I do know he’s better than 10th defensively in this league.”
Whether or not the pundits agree, Hibbert was the best player on the floor on Saturday night. Better than any of the Knicks’ marquee players.
“That’s the reason why he got the money, why he was an All-Star,” George said. “Because he works. He puts the time into it. I don’t think I’ll see him going back. I think this is the Roy we’ll have all postseason.”
If he keeps playing like he did on Saturday, he’s going to give a lot of people a lot of problems.