It’s been a down year for big men. Back in November, the NBA buried the center position by removing it from NBA All-Star ballots. Miami’s small ball brand represented the new age of smaller, offenses built around shooters and transition buckets.
Their championship story ending was etched in stone, but this series was touted as the Paul George’s litmus test and Indiana’s practice run for next season. However, two plays signify how the narrative in this series has shifted heading into Monday’s Game 7. The initial play was a highlight of Game 2 The other occurred Saturday night.
After George and Anthony one-upped one another between the third and fourth quarters of Game 2, LeBron gave George props with a low-five. George responded by scoring just 25 points in Indiana’s two home games. Indiana didn’t flinch. They slowed down their tempo and kept punching the ball inside to Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert abused Miami like they were front row at a Miguel concert by posting 43 and grabbing 29 boards in those two games He was relentless. On the defensive end, Hibbert’s carved out his own castle in the post, constructed a wall, built a moat and raised the bridge.
According to NBA.com stats, the Heat have shot 58.5 percent in the restricted area with Hibbert on the floor. In the 54 minutes that Hibbert has sat on the bench? That number soars to 67.6 percent. Frank Vogel's biggest mistake of the postseason may have been his decision to sit Hibbert played the final possession of Game 1. Paul George has been outstanding but he’s a red herring. Hibbert is the true protagonist against Miami.
Ignore the hyperbole that had previously bestowed the title of the NBA’s best center to Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez. Hibbert’s developed his game since beginning his career as a big stiff, but he’s not in Dwight Howard’s class. However, Miami’s front court looks like amoeba next to Hibbert.
The reigning league MVP had a sixth sense about this. Entering the series, James wasn’t as much worried about George as he was with Hibbert’s size in the middle. That’s why he was practicing floaters before the series began. The emergence of Chris Andersen alleviated those concerns for Miami, but his suspension for Game 6 exacerbated their glaring weakness inside.
In Game 6's pivotal third quarter, Miami was outscored 29 to 15, didn’t score a single point in the paint. James did attempt his first free throws of the game, but it wasn't until there were 2.6 seconds remaining in the third.
Which brings us back to other signature moment of this series. With 4:20, remaining in regulation of Game 6, Indiana's lead had been cut to nine by Miami. Exuding a newfound confidence, James found a lane, rumbled towards the basket and took flight to challenge Hibbert on one of the few occasions this season. Hibbert greeted him at the rim and James was given an offensive foul.
There was no dap for Hibbert. James was heated and earned a tech after sprinting down the court in disbelief. Miami was demoralized. In retrospect, he probably realized he should have flicked that floater he spent so much time practicing. Hibbert’s made his mark in this series, but in Game 7, he has a unique opportunity to alter the ending we thought was coming.