by Yaron Weitzman | @YaronWeitzman
Who could ever forget that block?
Carmelo Anthony thought he had a clear path to the basket. That two easy points were about to be his, that a 94-90 lead with five minutes left in the game was about to belong to the Knicks. Perhaps a run and a Game 6 win too, and with that would have came a Game 7 at home in the Garden, and then who knows? Stranger things have happened.
Anthony had caught the ball on the left block and then quickly shed an unbalanced Paul George, who had lunged forward in a failed attempt to swipe at the pass, with a quick dribble to his right and a spin toward the baseline. He planted both his feet, bent his knees and propelled himself off of the Banker’s Life Fieldhouse gym floor up toward the rim. The ball was cradled back slightly over his right shoulder. The play was all but complete.
Except there was Roy Hibbert doing what he had done all series to the Knicks and all season to unsuspecting opponents. The anchor of a Pacers defense that finished last season No. 1 in defensive efficiency, and opponents’ effective field-goal percentage, and opponents’ shooting percentage at the rim, slid to his left and under the basket. The 26-year-old then pulled all 280 pounds of his 7-2 frame straight up—always straight up—off the ground just quickly enough to squeeze his left fingertips between the ball in Anthony’s right hand and the net. The result would live forever in a framed picture that currently—yes, seriously—rests on the wall in the man cave of Hibbert’s home.
What was about to be a four-point Knicks lead quickly turned into a 16-9 run for the Pacers, and an eventual series-sealing Game 6 win. This time the shot was blocked. But it was the simple act of just getting in the way and jumping straight in the air with his hands completely vertical above his head, something that Hibbert turned into an art form last year, that had left Anthony and the Knicks looking completely stunned.
It wasn’t the most emphatic or impressive block you’ll ever see. The ball wasn’t slapped into the stands or toward half court to ignite a fast break. But what it did do is symbolize who Hibbert is, what he contributes to a basketball team, how he can influence a game, and the power that great defenders can—still—have against the Carmelo Anthonys of the game.
“Nobody does that stuff as well as Roy,” said Paul George in a conversation over the summer. “And even those that do, they’re not as disciplined as Roy is in terms of just jumping straight up.
“And having a guy like that behind you, it just makes playing defense so much easier. I can gamble and be aggressive on the ball because I know Roy is behind me protecting the rim. It just really puts me in a comfort zone.”
Hibbert may not be a great scorer (11.9 ppg and an extremely-low-for-a-center 44.8 field-goal percentage last season) or, for that matter, an effective one. He may not posses the quick feet and spry movements to swaddle up opposing guards on the perimeter like Joakim Noah and Kevin Garnett do, either. But what Hibbert does do (aside from helping Tom Haverford’s Entertainment 720 literally print its own money), perhaps better than anyone in the NBA save for a healthy Dwight Howard, is take away an opponents’ ability to score easy points.
The Pacers are a team devoid of great scorers. They also came within one win of knocking off the eventual NBA Champs last season and advancing to the Finals. These two statements don’t usually go hand-in-hand.
Playing defense in today’s NBA, where small ball and spread offenses and three-pointers reign, is about making concessions, about giving something away in order to prevent something else. With Hibbert lurking in the paint, the rest of the Pacers’ defenders can stay at home. They can slide over a pick on the perimeter, stay on a weak side shooter when the ball is in the post, close out hard to a three-point shot. The Pacers made the conference finals last year by playing blackjack—by taking away high-percentage shots and allowing low ones (such as mid-range jumpers). This could not be accomplished without a prolific interior defender like Hibbert, without a shot blocker who understands that sometimes just jumping straight up and not actually trying to block the shot is the best strategy to take.
Hibbert may not be the best player on the Pacers, but he’s certainly one of the most important. Being that on a legitimate Finals contender is more than enough to justify this ranking, scoring output be damned.
|SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.