Pacers formidable without big man


MIAMI --  Much of the narrative that has made this Heat-Pacers tale so compelling over the last two seasons has been the role of Roy Hibbert.

He's supposed to be what makes these teams so even. Hibbert goes from statistically ordinary – or even south of ordinary depending on your standards – against the rest of the league to downright dominant against a Heat interior lacking the height or girth to disrupt him. It sounds far too simple to say one player would have that kind of impact, but the numbers appeared to bear that out.

The 7-foot-2 Hibbert averaged 22.1 points on 56 percent shooting and 10.4 rebounds in last season's seven-game conference finals after a regular season that saw him put up 11.9 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 8.3 rebounds.

Well, consider Wednesday night's 97-94 Heat win over the Pacers something of a counterargument.

A fairly convincing one, too.

You can credit the continued growth of Paul George, the improved Pacers bench, an increased confidence level stemming from last season's playoffs or all of the above, but it's no longer just Hibbert making life miserable for the Miami Heat.

In fact, Hibbert played just 23 minutes due to consistent foul trouble and contributed a total of six points, two rebounds and one blocked shot in that time.

And though his overall plus-minus was just a minus-2 when the dust settled, the Pacers managed to twice extend leads to double figures after Hibbert was forced to the bench.

So while the AmericanAirlines Arena was taking particular pleasure in Hibbert picking up his second foul in the first quarter and his fifth foul early in the third quarter (perhaps that food poisoning Pacers coach Frank Vogel was fighting off affected his judgment for just a split second when he chose to leave Hibbert in the game with four third-quarter fouls), there's far more to Miami beating these Pacers than just taking the big man out of the game.

"We're a complete team," Vogel said. "Our guys stepped up."

In fact, the Pacers made their two most significant runs with Hibbert on the bench. The first came in the 5 minutes, 30 seconds following Hibbert's exit with two fouls. That's when the Pacers extended a one-point lead to a 36-24 advantage.

And here's who did the damage during that stretch: Lance Stephenson, Rasual Butler, C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola.

That list includes three players who weren't on the Pacers last season, one (Stephenson) who was once considered as dangerous to the Pacers as he was to their opponents, and Mahinmi, who's a nice reserve to have available but is a far less intimidating option than Hibbert.

Actually, if you listen to George, Mahinmi is just as intimidating as the center he plays behind.

In one sentence, George called Hibbert "the best rim protector in the league." Then moments later he called Mahinmi "as good a rim protector as Roy."

So by George's measure, the Pacers actually have the top two rim protectors in the NBA.

Of course, not many would agree with George's assessment, but the point is this group is quite comfortable even when Mahinmi fills in for the Heat's biggest nemesis of the past seven months.

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