How A Stout Roy Hibbert Led The Pacers Over LeBron James’ Heat

If you’re taking the short view — and in a 24-hour sports culture, we’re almost forced to — the Pacers’ 90-84 win over the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night could symbolize a “passing of the torch,” a “watershed moment,” a “statement game,” or [insert clichéd phrase here]. Roy Hibbert once again proved to be the antidote to LeBron James and Co. with an impressive win at home. In the long term, though, the win means nothing at all beyond the surface reactions.

With three more meetings in a season that’s barely gotten to the first quarter mark, Indiana’s second half surge for the win is a tiny blip on the radar screen of the 2-time defending champion Heat. But the win does reiterate what a lot of observers noted during last season’s tantalizing 7-game Eastern Conference Finals series. Namely: what the hell are the Heat going to do about Roy Hibbert?

The 7-2 center killed them in last season’s Conference Finals (averaging over 20 PPG for the series), and he did so again last night with 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting. Just look at how easily Hibbert scores in the post with three Heat players around him, and how simple his follow-up dunk becomes when Chris Andersen slides over to challenge a driving C.J. Watson layup:

The Heat simply don’t have anyone — until Greg Oden is ready to go — who can match up with Hibbert’s length and strength. While Roy’s offense blossoms against the small ball Heat and the Chris Bosh/Chris Andersen duo, it’s his defense that stymies this Heat team even more because it negates LeBron James’ greatest asset: finishing at the rim.

We’ve waxed poetic about Hibbert’s defensive acumen before, but last night was a study in how his presence can affect even a player of LeBron’s caliber.

James shot 6-of-16 from the floor, by far his worst shooting performance of this young season where he’s been connecting on 59 percent of his shots from the field. Wiry Paul George certainly helped to slow LeBron down, but it was Hibbert anchoring the back line that proved to be LeBron’s greatest impediment to the rim.

Keep reading to see three instances where Roy stopped a LeBron James bucket…

In this first clip, Hibbert gets switched out on LeBron, and James tries to take advantage of his superior quickness by driving around Roy to the right. But Hibbert stays with LeBron as he glides through the paint and up to the right side of the rim. Hibbert’s 7-foot body and long arms affect James enough he misses what appears to be an easy layup. The only downside for the Pacers was that Hibbert’s attention was diverted enough by James, Chris Bosh snuck in for an offensive rebound and layup.

These next two plays came in the fourth quarter, when the Pacers had taken a small lead and LeBron was trying to exploit his weight advantage against George to rally the Heat. In the first sequence, LeBron is isolated on the high block against the thinner Paul George. While PG is long and athletic enough to handle LeBron’s sweeping drives and contest his pull-up jumpers, his lithe, 23-year-old frame can’t handle James in the post, which is what LeBron is trying to take advantage of here. But you can see Hibbert diagonally on the lower block perched just outside the lane, ready to rotate over when James makes his move. That’s exactly what happened after LeBron flashes past George into the lane and at the bucket.

In this last clip, with under two minutes remaining, Hibbert’s ability to protect the rim is on full display. LeBron loses George above the three-point arc with a Bosh screen that ties up David West, too. LeBron not only has time to build up his speed, but he now has almost unfettered access to the right side of the basket.

Except, here comes a lumbering Hibbert again, leaving Andersen as the Pacers whole team shrinks closer to the basket after LeBron turns the corner (also a great example of the defense-on-a-string Vogel and Thibs preach). Hibbert’s rotation and verticality force LeBron to take a tougher layup than he initially expected, and George controlled the rebound while the Pacers keep their tenuous 5-point lead.

LeBron mentioned Hibbert’s imposing verticality to Bleacher Report’s Ethan J. Skolnick after the game:

“[Hibbert] takes a lot of teams out of what they are accustomed to doing, because he is so great at the rim, protecting the rim, and they allow him to use his verticality rule more than anyone in our league,” said James.

SportVu camera technology shows us that Hibbert has forced opponents to shoot a staggeringly low 39.7 percent at the rim. Hibbert only had one block last night (thwarting a Birdman dunk in the first half), but that stat is such a small part of his overall defensive brilliance. He covers more space than his tortoise pace implies, and rather than try and draw a charge, he’s jumping straight up, absorbing the oncoming contact of the driving offensive player, and getting legal blocks or inducing a miss while pissing off opposing coaches and driving wings in the process.

Among players averaging at least 1.5 blocks per game (and Hibbert is second in the league in that category, trailing only the injured Anthony Davis), only Larry Sanders — who has only appeared in two games so far this season — has held opponents to a worse shooting percentage at the rim than Hibbert. And no one else on that list has kept opponents under 40 percent at the rim.

The Heat and Pacers appear to be a continuation of the Bulls-Knicks battles in the early 1990s with the Pacers as the Knicks in this analogy (â„… a friend). Both teams feature big men from Georgetown who defend the rim well, and both faced off against possibly the greatest player in the game. Many thought the Knicks would eventually break through the stranglehold Chicago had on the Eastern Conference, but they were only able to do so when Jordan took his first sabbatical.

It remains to be seen whether the Pacers can get past the Heat when it matters, but with each passing regular season win in their head-to-head matchups this season, they get one step closer to home-court throughout the East, and a third straight date with the Heat in the spring. Only, this year, maybe they’ll be playing Game 7 where they won last night.

What do you think?

Follow Spencer on Twitter at @countcenci.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.