The Heist: Conference Finals Edition
The Jermaine O’Neal trade is still providing returns for the Pacers.
by Rafael Canton / @RafelitoC7
The year was 2004, and the NBA was a much different animal.
With an NBA-best 61-21 regular-season record, the Pacers were the heavily favored 1-seed going into a second-round matchup against the surprising 5-seed Miami Heat, led by a young upstart rookie in Dwyane Wade. In what was expected to be a series of relative ease for Indiana, they struggled through the first four games, losing Games 3 and 4 on the road. After taking Game 5 at Indiana, the Pacers had to travel to Miami for a Game 6.
With both teams struggling to shoot, Indiana was up 71-67 with a little bit over one minute left in the game. Miami’s Caron Butler drove for what appeared to be an uncontested layup, but Jermaine O’Neal—who finished third in MVP voting that season—came over from the weak side and blocked the shot while taking a finger in the left eye from Butler. The block turned out to be a game-altering play that helped protect Indiana’s lead and helped them win the series and head to the Conference Finals.
The Pacers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the ‘04 conference finals and headed on a decline after an assortment of problems, including the Malice at the Palace, off the court troubles for numerous players, and some poor decision-making from the front office. O’Neal’s career faded slowly due to injuries, and he was traded to the Toronto Raptors with the rights to a second rounder (Nathan Jawai). In return, Indiana received guard TJ Ford, center Rasho Nesterovic and forward Maceo Baston, as well as the rights to a first-round pick that they used on Georgetown center Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert’s growth has been stead since being drafted back in 2008. When he came into the NBA, Hibbert was a foul waiting to happen his rookie year averaging 7.7 fouls per 36 minutes (seventh in the NBA during the ’08-09 season). Since then, his conditioning has dramatically improved, and he’s managed to stay out of foul trouble (4.4 fouls per 36 minutes) by going straight up when contesting shots.
Hibbert’s improvement was clearly recognized after the Pacers recently defeated the Knicks in a very competitive six-game series to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since that 2004 series against the Pistons. Indiana displayed a balanced attack offensively, and Hibbert anchored the team’s League-leading defense.
During the six games, Hibbert averaged 3.17 bpg and altered even more attempts by Knicks players. None of these blocks was more important than his against Carmelo Anthony in the fourth quarter of Game 6. With the Pacers down 92-90 and the Knicks seeming to have the momentum in their favor, Knicks star Carmelo looked to punctuate the Knicks’ comeback against the Pacers with a dunk, but Hibbert responded with a timely swat that changed the trajectory of the contest.
The Pacers went on to outscore the Knicks 16-7 en route to a 106-99 win. Indiana is now facing a heavily favored Miami Heat. Hibbert’s block of Anthony recalls shades of O’Neal’s block on Butler, and reminds us how a simple throw-in to a trade can impact a franchise. The real question is whether the Pacers can go further with Hibbert than they did with O’Neal? Only time will tell.
Rafael Canton is a recent college graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is in the middle of his post-collegiate journey, and you can find some of his thoughts on the NBA and read his trade discussions on NBA Trades or on twitter @RafelitoC7.