Quite honestly, it is an odd moment when five grown men try to sit at one very tiny table together side-by-side. In fact, it looks a little bit stranger when all of those men sit at 6’3 to over 7’0-feet tall, crowding over two microphones that are really only meant for one player or coach at a time.
Yet there the Indiana Pacers were, their entire starting unit taking the post-game podium together, not one single player taking any more credit than the other.
With that said, the story needs to be set straight; the Indiana Pacers could not have defeated the New York Knicks 106-99, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 4-2 series victory on Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, without the play of Roy Hibbert.
Just as Hibbert has done all series long, the Pacers’ center made his force felt down low in the paint, dominating Eastern Conference All-Star Tyson Chandler in the process. Hibbert had made it known that due to Chandler’s success as a defensive player, being named the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, all series long he was going to make a point to attempt to put a strangle-hold on the area around the paint. Not much offense would be run through Hibbert, but he was going to attempt to make the most of his opportunities, and attempt to create baskets by extending plays with offensive rebounds.
What Hibbert didn’t say, despite his 21 points and 12 rebounds, was that he was going to make his case for being the best defensive big-man in the Eastern Conference along the way. Hibbert held Chandler to under 10 points and 10 rebounds for the fifth time this series, holding Chandler to just 2 points, 6 rebounds, and forcing him to foul-out along the way.
Yet perhaps Hibbert’s biggest play, the one that brought a sold-out crowd in their “Blue and Gold” free shirts to their feet, came not against the man he was assigned. Rather, it came against Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony, who despite a game-high 39 points on Saturday night, will most likely be remembered for the one play he couldn’t convert on.
With New York leading 92-90 with 5:03 left in the fourth and game six clearly hanging in the balance, Anthony turned towards his left on the baseline and spun past Paul George. A slam dunk was clearly on the mind of Anthony, who had a clean look at the basket as he went up with the ball in one-hand. Yet there was Hibbert, breaking into the lane on some help defense, going straight up into the air as Carmelo’s full-force dunk was coming straight forward for a dunk that would have posterized most men. Yet as Anthony’s hand was literally cupped forward over the basket, Hibbert’s pure-strength cleanly found the ball and knocked it straight out of Anthony’s palms, blocking him in the process and swinging the Pacers into a 9-0 run that practically closed the game.
“I was exhausted by that point,” said Hibbert, who played 42 minutes. “I just had to get a stop. Paul was doing a great job on him. I was just trying to make sure to protect the paint as much as possible.”
“It was huge,” said Paul George. “That was one of the changes in the game, because we were off to the running on the other end. Roy was huge for us, and again, we couldn’t be here if we didn’t have Roy to anchor our defense.”
However, in all honesty and how great Hibbert played, the Pacers could not have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals without the play of Lance Stephenson.
As I touched on earlier in the week, the maturity and growth of Lance Stephenson since last season has been phenomenal. But nobody could have expected Stephenson, despite his nickname “Born Ready”, to be able to step up to the moment and carry this Pacers squad such as he did on Saturday night. Yet there was Stephenson, with a 16 points and 8 rebounds in the first half alone, matching everything the New York Knicks had to throw at him.
And as expected, Stephenson did slow down in the second half, finding himself with zero points, rebounds, or any statistic in the box score in the third quarter despite playing all twelve minutes. Yet with 4:50 left in the game, with Indiana down 92-90, Stephenson put on a Superman cape and practically stole the show.
First a layup down low to tie the game, and then the ultimate wound to the Knicks that opened up the cut that couldn’t stop bleeding. With the score at 92-92, Carmelo Anthony drove down to the right block and surprisingly looked to pass to J.R. Smith, but an errant pass found a streaking Stephenson towards the hoop. Stephenson got fouled on his way to the basket and converted on the field goal, sending the crowd into a delirium as he pointed straight back to the fans. Lance would make the following free throw, continue on to score five more points in the quarter, and finish with a team-high 25 points and 10 rebounds to boot.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” said Stephenson. “Just try to penetrate and dish, take it to the basket, and try to make smart plays. I did that tonight, and we got the win.”
As he ran into the locker room, point guard George Hill told his teammate Jeff Pendergraph how he was going to lift Stephenson high into the air, because without him, the Pacers couldn’t have pulled off the victory. Hill gave the attempt his best shot to the much bigger Stephenson.
The rest of his teammates, and even his coach, couldn’t have been happier about his performance.
“He is just a confident player now,” said Paul George. “He is doing it on the defensive end. He has always been special on the offensive end, but when he has his mind set on to really dominate, he does an excellent job of doing so.”
“Unbelievable,” said Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel on Stephenson.
“He’s got no playoff experience whastoever, but he has some of the best basketball instincts I’ve been around. He’s a gamer. Put him in a situation like this, game six and a close-out game, the kid’s got a lot of guts and great, great basketball instincts.”
More or less though, Indiana wouldn’t be in it’s first 2004 Eastern Conference Finals without the defense of Paul George. Ignore the fact that Anthony did in fact have a game-high 39 points on 15-29 shooting. The matter of the fact is, perhaps nobody in the Association outside of Lebron James could have made Anthony work as hard as he had to this series to put any points on the board.
Yet there was George, playing a tiresome 45:28, scoring an efficient 23 points on 9-15 shooting, and finding a way to force one of the league’s most-clutch players in Anthony to just 2-7 shooting throughout the final twelve minutes.
“We really coiled them down,” said George about the Pacers defense in the fourth. “We were in our gaps. We loaded up on Carmelo, and really made it a tough time at the rim for those guys attacking Roy.”
Still though, you can’t help but think after the way the Pacers offense looked discombobulated in game five’s loss, that Indiana wouldn’t have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals without point guard George Hill.
Hill, who was back in the starting lineup after missing the previous contest due to a mild concussion, was out on the court for a tiresome 42-plus minutes and chipped in 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Maybe the most impressive part, considering he wasn’t cleared to play until one o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, Hill only committed one single turnover. More importantly though, Hill didn’t seem to be suffering from his concussion following the victory.
“Not to my knowledge,” said Vogel. “He came in and congratulated me, we talked about the game a little bit, and he didn’t say anything about his head.”
Lastly though, Indiana probably would not be preparing for trip to Miami this Wednesday without the veteran leadership and outstanding play of David West. The consistent rock and voice of reason on the team, who chipped in 17 points and 5 rebounds on Saturday night, had been nothing but solid and steady all series long on both ends of the floor.
“It all started when David West got here,” said Hibbert on why this Pacers team has been so successful these past two seasons. “The culture of the team really changed to a tough, gritty team.”
And yet after the biggest series win since 2004, there was the team-leader in West, describing the secret as to what makes this Pacers team so dangerous.
“At some point, every day, every guy speaks to every guy on this team,” said West.
“And I’ve been on teams where that is not the case. Everybody has a conversation throughout the day, at practice or whatever with everybody. That is huge for us, especially in tough situations and tough environments. Guys are never looking for theirs. These guys will always tell you that I’m barking at them to shoot, to not pass up shots. Because with George, I got confidence he can make plays. I’ve got confidence with Roy, Lance, and everybody. That has kind of been what we have been all year. It is something that we don’t talk about it, we practice it. Guys are in constant communication in the locker room, we don’t have any egos, and we don’t have a bunch of ‘I’ guys, we have a bunch of ‘we’ guys. Guys who are intent on going out and doing whatever we have to do to go out and win a game. So if it is Paul’s night, George’s night, it doesn’t matter as long as we are all going out to the same goal, and that is to win the game.”
All five of those players in Hibbert, Stephenson, George, Hill, and West were sitting at the same press conference table, sharing the limelight following the win. All five the were the main reasons (along with a bench that played great this series being the sixth) as to why this Pacers squad advanced past the second-seeded New York Knicks. All five of them, having lead the team in scoring in the playoffs at one point or another.
On Wednesday, the Pacers will travel to Miami to face-off against the heavily favored Heat for game one.
Leading up to that contest, you will probably hear why the Heat will knock out the Pacers for a second year in a row, why Lebron James will be able to have his way against Indiana, and that Miami will in fact cruise into their third straight NBA Finals.
Yet when you take a moment to really take a look at the series, maybe the Heat aren’t going to sweep or blow past the blue and gold. In fact, maybe Indiana could find it’s way stealing one game, two games, three games, and ultimately four.
How could this be possible? Well taking a look at the picture below, I could give you five reasons.