NBA AM: Hibbert Peaking At Right Time?
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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Right now, the Eastern Conference is basically looked at as a one-team conference. There’s the Miami HEAT, who are the defending NBA champions and winners of 16 in a row, and then there’s everyone else. Seven other teams from the East will join Miami in the playoffs and try to prevent them from representing the conference in the NBA Finals again, but nobody is expecting the HEAT to have much resistance as they look to win the East for the third straight season. Except in Indiana.
The Pacers are 38-23 overall and in a prime position to finish in the top three. They’ve been without Danny Granger, their star player, for most of the season, but the emergence of Paul George as an All-Star has kept the Pacers amongst the East’s elite. Granger came back for a short period of time, but is out once again with knee troubles. The hope is that he can be back within a week.
Because of how long he’s been out, the Pacers have really grown accustomed to playing without him. If they get anything from him in the playoffs, that’s a really additional boost, but they haven’t relied heavily on him all season long and aren’t going to all a sudden ask him to shoulder the burden come playoff time.
Someone who will have to shoulder a bigger load in the playoffs, though, is starting center Roy Hibbert. Hibbert received a big contract worth $58 million over four years this offseason and to start the year looked nothing like the max money player he was getting paid like. However, as the playoffs, where interior play and halfcourt execution on both ends of the court is vital, get set to start Hibbert appears to be reverting back to last year’s form. So far in March, he’s averaging 16 points on 54 percent shooting from the field while grabbing eight rebounds and blocking nearly four shots a contest.
“My wrist is all healed up now,” Hibbert said to 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. “The training staff has done a good job of rehabbing my wrist, so I don’t even get treatment on that anymore. And then, my confidence in my offensive game has gone up. And myself, I’ve grabbed the big guys out there every practice and grabbing the big man coach and we do drills just to get some touch around the basket and get some reps up. I think that’s helped me out a lot, but first and foremost defense is what I always worry about.”
At the start of the year Hibbert wasn’t even averaging double digits, or shooting above 40 percent from the field. It was looking like Pacers could really end up regretting giving him that contract and that he may not have been worth what he was given, but those days are long gone now.
“It wasn’t a mental block from the contract because my life hasn’t changed that much,” Hibbert said. “I just go about my business in the same way and everything like that. It was the fact that shots weren’t going in because of a certain problem and then I lost confidence a little bit in my shot and the shots I wouldn’t normally make were going in. The contract thing, I hadn’t even thought about all year. It was mainly I was shooting at a higher percentage in my off hand than I was my strong hand
“To tell the truth, the shots I normally take weren’t going in. The touch was going. If I try to shoot it one way it’d be like six inches off a little bit. I mean, to normal people who are listening right now, they think it should be able to go right in. Everything about the low-post game is about touch and about rhythm and it was off. So Paul George, David West and Lance Stephenson stepped up and we were winning games with them scoring at a high level. I was primarily defending and blocking shots and rebounding, so I am not going to try to change things up and say I need more shots when things are working. But the shots I am getting now are working. I still don’t take a large amount of shots, but that’s just my game and I try to be as efficient as possible.”
After giving the HEAT one of their toughest series last season, the Pacers know that they have the ability to compete at a championship-caliber level. But first, they want to worry about finishing out the regular season as well as they can.
“I mean for us, obviously we want to win the division first,” Hibbert said. “Last game I was in the huddle and saying, ‘Hey we are playing for a banner. We are playing to put up a banner during the Chicago game before the shootaround.’ The coaches were asking us how many division titles we have won? When was the last time? Everybody was guessing and I’m saying to myself, ‘The banners are up right there. You could just count them out right there.’ But it’s important for us to win that first and go on and win on the road and have a high seed and get homecourt advantage in the playoffs. We want to go far into the playoffs.”
Joseph Getting His Chance: Earlier this year, San Antonio Spurs point guard Cory Joseph wasn’t sure if or when he would get his chance to play. All he knew was that he would be ready if the opportunity came as he was getting extended run in the D-League with the Spurs’ D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros.
When Tony Parker went down with an ankle injury against the Sacramento Kings, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich opted to hand the starting point guard reins over to him. The opportunity came suddenly, but Joseph has backed up his talk and played pretty solid basketball for the Spurs. In two games as a starter Joseph has been playing 21 minutes a contest, shooting 50 percent from the field while scoring six points a night and dishing out three assists. He’s been serviceable and doing what the team has asked, but don’t expect Joseph to become an intricate part of what the Spurs are doing this season. They still have Nando De Colo, Patty Mills and Gary Neal who are most likely to see the backup minutes at the point guard spot in the playoffs, and this is mainly about seeing what they have in Joseph while Parker is out.
“We’ll put in stuff for (Joseph) when we put in stuff for Mario Elie,” Popovich said to Jessee Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell. “He knows 80 percent of what we’re running.”
Parker is projected to be out four weeks with a grade 2 sprained ankle, giving Joseph his chance to prove his worth. While he may not be looked at as a part of the playoff rotation right now, he could certainly change that if he impresses enough during this upcoming stretch. But, if he does, he’ll have to do so within the confines of the offense because he’s not at a point yet where Popovich is going to start running things specifically for him.
Big Day In The West: It’s looking like the race for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference could come down to the final days of the regular season. Every game at this junction of the year is vital and tonight there are three key games to keep an eye on.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who are a game and a half back of the eighth place Utah Jazz, will look to keep pace against the Toronto Raptors. The Lakers are coming off of a monster comeback win against the New Orleans Hornets. It will be interesting to see if they once again play down to the level of their competition as the Raptors have gone 4-6 in their last 10, but cannot be slept on.
Meanwhile the faltering Utah Jazz, who have gone from being in seventh place to now clinching onto the eighth seed for dear life, travel to Chicago to take on the Bulls. The Bulls have been free falling themselves as they wait for their leader Derrick Rose to get back on the floor.
The third game to keep an eye on, and likely the most entertaining, will feature the offensively potent Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. The Rockets have moved up into the seventh seed, while the Warriors are trying to stay in the sixth spot. They’ve been playing .500 basketball as of late, though, and are trying to avoid backing their way into the playoffs.
Harris, Wayns Get 10-Day Deals: Two more players from the D-League are set to get called up to the NBA according to reports. Maalik Wayns, an undrafted free agent who spent the first half of the season with the Philadelphia 76ers, is going to Los Angeles to join the Clippers according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports and ESPN’s Marc Stein is reporting that veteran guard Terrell Harris is going to join the New Orleans Hornets. Harris previously spent time with the Miami HEAT and is coming in to help at shooting guard with Austin Rivers out for the next 4-6 weeks with a broken bone in his hand.
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