When LeBron James won Game 1 for the Heat with a buzzer-beating layup in overtime, Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel was roundly criticized for taking center Roy Hibbert out of the game on the final possession. Vogel’s reasoning was his worry the Miami Heat might draw up a midrange jumper for Chris Bosh, something Hibbert had difficulty defending all game.
Since, Hibbert has played at such a high level on both ends of the floor, especially defensively, that Vogel has no choice but to keep him in. In the Pacers’ series-tying 99-92 win Tuesday, he scored 23 points and collected 12 rebounds.
During the Big 3-era Heat’s inaugural NBA Finals run in 2011, Joel Anthony started at center and Miami played a more traditional style, with James at small forward and Bosh at power forward. Over the past two seasons, Anthony fell out of the rotation as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra switched to a smaller lineup that has run roughshod over most of the league.
But most NBA teams don’t have a player like Hibbert, a 7-2 presence with outstanding defensive instincts and a diverse set of offensive skills, including a devastating drop-step hook shot.
Last summer, Hibbert signed a four-year, $58 million offer sheet with the Portland Trail Blazers that was matched by the Pacers. The contract drew criticism around the league after he regressed offensively this season. But in the playoffs, Hibbert has proven exactly why Indiana felt comfortable paying him big money. During this year’s playoffs, the Pacers have a net rating of 5.9 more points scored than allowed per 100 possessions when Hibbert is on the floor. When he’s on the bench, that number drops to -11.1.
The Heat’s return to the Finals felt inevitable before this series started and even after needing overtime in that Game 1 victory. However, the Pacers push them more than anyone else. Even during the bloodbath that was Miami’s second-round series with the Chicago Bulls, there was never a sense that the Heat might actually lose.
Vogel often says Hibbert is the best rim protector in the NBA. Spoelstra agrees. And through four games of the Eastern Conference finals, he’s looked like the most important player on either team.
LeBron’s rare disqualification: LeBron fouled out near the end of Tuesday’s game with an illegal screen set against Lance Stephenson. It was only the second time in 128 career playoff games that he has picked up six fouls. In 765 regular-season games, he has fouled out three times.
Super Mario to the rescue: The Big Three and Chris “Birdman” Andersen aren’t the only Heat players who have been impressive in this series. Mario Chalmers had his best game of the playoffs on Tuesday, scoring 20 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
The Eastern Conference Finals return to Miami for Game 5 on Thursday at 8:30 p.M. Eastern time, on TNT.
Check out the complete Eastern Conference Finals schedule as well as breakdowns of how the San Antonio Spurs match up with both the Heat and the Pacers.