NBA Saturday: How Indiana Beats Miami
Pacers Know It’s Defense That Gets Them Past HEAT
People keep asking, “Can anybody top the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference?” And the easy answer is usually just someone laughing derisively. Yes, the HEAT have won 21 games in a row and look like an unstoppable train of basketball perfection right now, but there is still at least a little bit of hope for the East in the form of the Indiana Pacers.
Indiana has beaten Miami in two out of three matchups this year, but the home team has won every time. Despite that fact, Pacers All-Star Paul George says they’re already circling the HEAT for an eventual postseason re-match which could occur later this spring.
“Anybody that’s in the playoffs, that’s got to be on everybody’s list, to knock off Miami,” George said. “They’re the defending champions, but we feel good about that match-up. They took care of things at home, but so did we earlier in the year. They’re on our list of teams that’s going to be a contender for us.”
But how can any organization keep up with a team as good as Miami? George really only had one idea.
“It’s got to be defense,” George said. “You’ve got three guys that can get the job done on Miami’s team, and you’ve really got to dial into those guys. They’re the focal point, but with them, it’s really about eliminating the other guys that can do damage for them.”
Roy Hibbert, arguably the team’s best defensive player, agreed that defense was going to be what gets the Pacers through the postseason.
“When our offense wasn’t really flowing for us at the beginning the year, defense is what we fell back on,” Hibbert said. “That should always be the backbone of a team.”
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel agreed whole-heartedly, pointing out Hibbert’s growth as a defender specifically.
“Our slow offensive start (to the season) enhanced our defensive urgency. I think that was a blessing in disguise, not only from a team standpoint, but from a Roy Hibbert standpoint,” Vogel said. “His early offensive struggles sort of motivated him to say, ‘Look, if I’m not scoring, I better impact the game in different ways.’ He’s having a better defensive year than he had last year. Probably his best defensive year all around.”
Hibbert is averaging 2.7 blocks per game, good for third in the league, and it’s something he not only takes pride in, but also really enjoys.
“It’s timing, reading defenses, knowing who’s driving to the lane,” Hibbert said about his game plan for tough offensive teams like Miami. “There are some people who serve it up to you and put the ball right in your face to block, and then there are other guys who really hold onto it tightly. It’s just knowing personnel and having a read for the game.”
That read for the game on the defensive end, George says, has been the key to Indiana’s success this year.
“Defense has been everything,” George said. “We don’t have the superstar guys, so defense is where we have to hang our hat.”
As far as Vogel is concerned, that will have to continue into the playoffs if they’re to have any chance at advancing past the HEAT—something they couldn’t do in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season.
“There’s no question,” Vogel said. “I don’t know what other way to say it other than we’re a defensive and rebounding-oriented team.”
And if anybody is going to topple mighty Miami, that elite defense is going to have to be at its best. It’s the league’s best hope at sending an Eastern Conference team other than LeBron James’ crew to the NBA Finals.
Chris Duhon: One of the League’s Steadiest Backup Point Guards
The career arc of an NBA point guard is a difficult one to predict. Players can turn into stars, or they can flame out. Sometimes they sniff at stardom, but find themselves serving as a backup to some talented up-and-comer later on in their careers. Rare is the player, however, that enters the league as a backup point guard and finds longevity in that role. Guys like that are supposed to be a dime a dozen, after all, yet L.A. Lakers guard Chris Duhon is still employed.
He’s never been particularly athletic or exciting to watch, but he has managed to play for some of the league’s best teams in some of the league’s biggest markets. So, what’s the secret to being an effective backup?
“Obviously you don’t play as many minutes. You’re usually in there with the second unit, so it’s more of a ‘keeping the team afloat’ type of thing,” Duhon said. “But at the same time, I always treat it as still being a starter. When I’m out there, just play my game, whether it’s coming off the bench or starting. It doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes, and I’ve finished a lot of games that I have played in.”
As a member of the Lakers, Duhon has witnessed how exuberant that fan base is, but it’s not like he hasn’t seen similar things at stops in New York, Chicago and even at Duke University.
“I’ve definitely been blessed to be in great cities,” Duhon said. “Here (in L.A.), it’s just a different monster. Everywhere we go we have a huge following, and there’s times where we’re on the road but it still feels like a home game. I just give credit to the tradition of the Lakers. I’m used to it, so it really doesn’t matter. I’ve been in so many games that now it just kind of becomes something that you do.
“At Duke,” he continued, “we played in a lot of NBA arenas, and we played in a lot of hostile environments, so that kind of prepared me for the league.”
Despite that, the Lakers are still an entirely different animal. No other team in the NBA seems to have quite as many fans, and fans that are so well-spaced-out.
“Lakers fans are all over the country,” Duhon said. “We play in New Orleans and it feels like a home game. We play in Orlando, and it feels like a home game because there are so many Laker fans. You don’t get that as much from the New York and Chicago.”
Of course, you also don’t get quite the expectations that the Lakers do, either. When you play for a franchise that has made the postseason every year but two since 1976, the expectations are a little bit higher than they are in some other markets. When you add the huge following and constant smothering media presence, it’s no wonder the Lakers’ struggles this year have been such a huge story.
Despite it all, Duhon says the expectations haven’t stressed them out just yet.
“We already had such high expectations for ourselves anyways, so for us to dig ourselves into a hole obviously it was frustrating,” Duhon said. “But we’re not just trying to make the playoffs; we could win it all.”
That’s the plan, at least, and even though Duhon won’t be a huge part of the rotation that weaves its way through the Western Conference (maybe), he is still a part, and that’s Duhon’s most redeeming quality. He finds a way to contribute to big-time NBA teams, even if just in small ways. It’s worked for him so far—why should he stop now?