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Saturday, June 1, 2013
Updated: June 2, 4:00 AM ET
Roy Hibbert, obstacle to Heat repeat

By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN Insider

INDIANAPOLIS -- Watching this Eastern Conference finals, you would never have guessed that Roy Hibbert finished 10th in the Defensive Player of the Year vote.

But he did. The voting media gave him just 36 votes, 176 votes fewer than award-winning Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. In fact, Hibbert didn't even lead his own team in votes; Paul George finished ahead of him in the voting.

In the Pacers' 91-77 win in Game 6, Hibbert finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds and only one block, but he altered so many more. The Heat rarely entered Hibbert's domain around the basket and when they did, Hibbert's outstretched arms made sure they never got an easy look.

The Heat converted just 32.4 percent (11 of 34) of their field goal attempts in the paint -- the lowest percentage in any game of Miami's Big Three era.

Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert and Paul George made a formidable tandem in Game 6, combining for 52 points.

This paint protection isn't anything new. So why has the media overlooked Hibbert's defense?

Roy Denzil Hibbert, the floor is yours.

"You know what, because y'all m------------ don't watch us play throughout the year, to tell you the truth," Hibbert charged. "That's fine. I'm going to be real with you, and I don't care if I get fined. You know what, we play, we're not on TV all the time. Reporters are the ones that are voting. And it is what it is."

Hibbert, who sat next to George on the dais, would've dropped the mike had it not been stationed on the podium. On his way out of the press conference room, George cracked a smile.

"Well said."

Hibbert clearly wanted to get this off his chest, and it's hard to blame him. Hibbert anchored the top defense in the league, holding opponents to just 96.6 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. Sure, Hibbert played the small-market card, but it doesn't hold much water when the winner of the award plays in Memphis. Perhaps Hibbert playing only 28.7 minutes per game has something to do with his vote total.

But if you're searching for a reason why Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been neutralized in this series, be careful underestimating Indiana's big man in the middle. Yes, Wade and Bosh are limping through injuries and it is raising doubts whether Miami's Big Three moniker is appropriate these days, but Hibbert has as big a hand in that downfall as anything.

Check out these numbers. The Heat have shot 58.5 percent in the restricted area in this series with Hibbert on the floor, according to NBA.com stats. In the 54 minutes that Hibbert has sat on the bench? That number soars to 67.6 percent, or almost identical to their regular season conversion rate of 67.2 percent.

That, folks, is the Hibbert effect.

Now, it's one thing to hold the field goal percentage down, but it's another to prevent layups altogether. Simply put, Hibbert has built a fortress in the paint in this series. The Heat have not only converted their layups at a higher percentage when Hibbert leaves the floor, but also find them more often. When Hibbert mans the court, the Heat take 33.1 percent of their shots in the restricted area. When Hibbert sits, that numbers rises to 42.0 percent.

This isn't just a one-series blip. In a research paper presented at the MIT Sports Conference, Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry found that when players shot the ball inside five feet with Hibbert nearby, they converted those shots at just 38.2 percent, the lowest rate in the league this season. Hibbert also prevented those shots from even happening at one of the highest rates in the league.

Shane Battier, who has proudly been a numbers geek throughout his career, feels Hibbert's shot alteration has been crucial in this series, even if it's not publicly tracked in the box score.

"There's a reason why they're the No. 1 defense in the league," Battier said. "Not to get all sabermetric on you, but there's a correlation between contested shots and winning percentages."

Look at the Heat's shot chart from Game 6. Hibbert is why it looks like buried treasure is scattered all over the paint.

If you don't trust the numbers or graphics, then just watch the tape. You won't find many paint attacks, especially from Wade, Bosh or LeBron James. A recent in-depth TrueHoop study of Pacers-Heat games since the 2012 playoffs revealed that James converted just four of his 106 baskets by going directly at Hibbert for a layup or dunk.

The Hibbert-versus-James dynamic was crystallized in the fourth quarter with the Heat's backs against the wall, down nine points with a little over four minutes left. James whizzed by George at the top of the key, barreled down the middle of the floor and beelined for Hibbert, who stood in front of the rim. Hibbert rose up to meet a soaring James and they collided in midair.

This moment dripped with symbolism.

James ended up missing the layup on Hibbert and was called for an offensive foul, which promptly sent the MVP sprinting down the floor. Technical on James. And that was it.

James thought it was a clean play, convinced that Hibbert got away with one.

"I don't complain about calls too much," James said. "I thought me and Hibbert met at the mountaintop."

Hibbert won the battle at the summit with perhaps a little boost from the referees, but the Heat still don't know how to deal with Hibbert in the middle. The Heat, who led the league in offensive efficiency, have been held under 80 points twice this season. Both games have come against the Pacers.

When asked about the critical play after the game, Hibbert outlined his value as a paint protector and safety net for his teammates.

"I tell Paul [George], I have his back all the time," Hibbert said. "I don't block a lot of shots all the time, but I try to alter it as much as possible and not give up any easy plays ... I wanted to be there for him. He's the future. I mean, I think he has a chance to be MVP of this league next year. Every guard needs to have a big guy to have his back so I'm that guy."

When recalling the play after the game, George returned the praise, suggesting that voters might wish they got a mulligan for voting for Gasol, not Hibbert, for the top defender hardware.

"He's one of the, if not the best, defensive bigs in this league," George said. "And I'm glad he's being able to highlight that in this series. If they continue to vote who is going to be Defensive Player of the Year, he would have gotten the award. But that's just him making a huge play at the rim."

After one of their worst offensive performances as a team, the Heat's stars look broken and defeated. And there's Hibbert, standing tall, altering their shot to repeat.