Vulnerable Pacers, Heat Leave East to Be Had

Oh, that mild and wacky NBA Eastern Conference.

Just when you thought the Miami Heat were too old, too tired, too LeBron, they turned back the clock and played like champions again. Just when you thought the Indiana Pacers could break their free-fall before they went splat on the pavement, they played like a team that lacked confidence let alone championship swagger.

And just when you thought the Heat had a stranglehold on the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs, they looked their age in a loss against the Hawks in Atlanta, while the Pacers squeezed out a home victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder to take over the top spot again.

What to make of the whole thing? Don’t put a lot of stock in the seed order. Only weeks after the Pacers and the Heat appeared to be on a collision course to meet in the conference finals, I make it even money that at least one of them will be on the fairways instead.

As LeBron James reminded reporters, “The No. 1 seed doesn’t guarantee winning a playoff series, you know. For us, we want to guarantee that we play Miami Heat basketball every night.”

What impressed me about the Heat wasn’t that they dominated the Pacers at home but how they did it. With James at his aggressive, unstoppable best – 30 points in 30 minutes through three quarters. With the kind of pressure defense that we had seen only on occasion in recent weeks. With the gimpy Dwyane Wade in civvies again. And with Chris Bosh and four subs on the floor after the visitors had threatened to make a game of it early in the fourth quarter. The defending champions have to dig a bit deeper for it now, but know this: They’re still capable of greatness when they have to have it.

What stood our even more was the inability the Pacers even vaguely resemble the team they had been only months ago. Which is to say, the best in the league.

All of a sudden, the Pacers appear to have more warts than a tree toad. They lack a dependable go-to scorer. (Paul George isn’t that guy yet.) They lack a proven floor leader. (George Hill? Lance Stephenson? C.J. Watson? No, no and no.) There’s also those juicy off-court rumors that can’t help but be distractions. (Paul George + Doc Rivers.) Something smells behind the scenes here, and don’t be surprised if we find out what it is this summer.

But one problem stands 7 feet, 2 inches above the rest right now. Where, oh where has Roy Hibbert been lately?

At his All-Star best, which often has been against the Heat in recent seasons, Hibbert ranks on the short list of biggest difference-makers in the conference. Last summer they signed Greg Oden specifically with him in mind, but the injury-prone center has been slow to come back from an extended layoff, hasn’t played in weeks and may be left off the postseason roster. That leaves them with no answers for Hibbert in the middle. The old Hibbert, that is, not the current one.

For reasons unclear, we’ve seen a much different Hibbert since the All-Star break. In that span, he has shot a feeble 41 percent in the field and averaged all of 4.6 rebounds per game.

“We’ve got to get more from him,” said Frank Vogel, who has gone from the Coach of the Year favorite to a man on the hot seat in no time flat.

Even one shot attempt or one rebound would be nice. Somehow, Hibbert didn’t have either in the first half. Part of the problem was an inability to get him the ball in the right spot at the right time, which spoke to the lack of ball distributors. There was no good excuse for the fact that he didn’t have a rebound against the team that ranked dead last in the category in the league. Really, shouldn’t someone that big and that talented have one fall into his lap by accident? In 34 minutes, he totaled five points, a pair of blocked shots and one (1) rebound. Provided that the guy is reasonably healthy – an he hasn’t indicated otherwise – the performance reeked of a lack of focus or effort or both.

“Just I’m boxing out, but I just got to go after them (missed shots) some more,” Hibbert said rather cryptically afterwards. “Just got to work on that.”

Here it is 81 games into the regular season, and Hibbert is a work in progress. Against the Thunder, he scored zero points and bricked all nine of his field goal attempts.

The Heat have their own problems at the moment, ones that leave them as vulnerable as they have been at any time in the James era. At 32, Wade looks a lot better in uniform than with a bow tie, but a troublesome left hamstring sidelined him for nine games recently, a layoff that could very well cost his team the top seed for what it’s worth. While Wade played well in his return against the Hawks, his team was one false step away from championship elimination. Because without him, it has no chance to pull off a historic three-peat.

For that reason, it would not surprise me if the playoff-savvy Brooklyn Nets or the always-annoying Chicago Bulls pushed the Heat to the brink before long. Both match up well against James and his gang, and both have played some of their best ball of the season of late. Until then – or at least until Roy Hibbert plays like Roy Hibbert again – the Heat remain the team to beat in the conference for at the least next hour or so.