LeBron James came around the screen with a full head of steam and a narrow path to the basket. Roy Hibbert knew where he had to be. The Pacers center recovered to the rim just in time to meet James in the air and alter his shot with Indiana clinging to a five-point lead with under 2 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
It was a play James has been converting for a decade at this point. It's one he usually dunks home. But in what's become a disturbing trend for the Heat, Hibbert again found a way to foil Miami's expected outcome. Empowered by the laws of verticality and motivated by a losing effort in the dog fight that was last season's Eastern Conference finals, Hibbert forced James' layup to careen off the side of the rim, where Pacers teammate Lance Stephenson grabbed the rebound.
It was only one play, but it underlined Indiana's newfound confidence and physical advantage this season. The Heat simply have no answer for Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert played a spectacular two-way game in the Pacers' 90-84 win in front of a charged atmosphere in Indiana on Tuesday night. The center paced Indiana's struggling offense early and helped lock down Miami's attacks at the rim late. Hibbert set the tone by scoring nine of the Pacers' first 11 points on the way to his best game of the season, a 24-point, five-rebound performance that saw him shoot 10-of-15 from the field. While the surface-level numbers are impressive, they don't truly capture his impact on the game.
Hibbert has been a different player since last season's conference finals, a statement that also extends to the emergence of the Pacers' best player, Paul George. A year ago, Hibbert seemed to use the regular season to work himself into shape after signing a max contract with the Pacers many felt to be unwarranted at the time.
There's no doubt Hibbert is worth every penny a year later. He's Indiana's trump card in the likely Eastern Conference Finals rematch this season, and he's morphing into an irreplaceable force for the Pacers. As long as Hibbert is healthy, Indiana believes it has a legitimate shot at ending the Heat's bid for a three-peat before it reaches the NBA Finals.
The Pacers' stated goal is to grab the No. 1 seed in the East this season. They're not hiding from it. Indiana lost to the Heat in a Game 7 in Miami a season ago, and believes the outcome would have been different had the game been played in front of its home crowd. The Pacers' blistering 19-3 start has them in position to accomplish the task. It's a testament to Hibbert's commitment to keeping himself in shape as much as anything else.
Hibbert, as legend has it, couldn't do a single pushup when he enrolled at Georgetown in 2004. His perceived lack of mobility was the reason Indiana was able to grab him outside of the lottery at pick No. 17 in the 2008 draft. The Pacers have showed patience and faith in the center ever since, and his performance against the Heat on Tuesday, a day before his 27th birthday, proved once again the investment is paying off.
Just 22 games into the season, Hibbert looks like the odds-on choice for Defensive Player of the Year. He's the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the league for the second season in a row. His offense is better than ever, too. Right now, the Pacers are 17 points better per 100 possessions offensively and 8.5 points better defensively with Hibbert on the floor, per NBA.com. Unlike some of the other dominant centers around the league, he's not a liability at the foul line late in games.
Most importantly, Hibbert's averaging more than 30 minutes a game for the first time in his career this season. Though the Pacers will go to great lengths to preserve him for the playoffs, the number is still impressive. It shows all of the work Hibbert put in to get his body to the point, and it shows the belief the Pacers always held in the big man to allow him to get there. And if Hibbert can play heavy minutes like this consistently into June, the Heat are in even more trouble.
Another Eastern Conference Finals meeting is still five and a half months away. The Heat don't seem too worried just yet, and they've earned that right as back-to-back champs. But save for a miracle in the form of Greg Oden, they aren't about to find an answer for Hibbert before the postseason begins. It's what Indiana has always been banking on.