Hibbert, Experience Lead Pacers Over Sixers

by Wheat Hotchkiss

November 24, 2013 | 12:50 a.m.

For most of Saturday night, the feisty Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t go away.

After a back-and-forth first half, it looked like Indiana had taken control in the third quarter, opening up an 11-point lead heading into the fourth. But less than five minutes later, the Sixers were up four and threatening to steal a road win.

The Pacers could have panicked. A lesser team might even have packed it in. Instead, Indiana righted the ship in just 1:22, with center Roy Hibbert triggering a decisive 10-0 swing.

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“We’re an experienced team,” said Hibbert after the Pacers’ 106-98 win. “We don’t worry. We know we can finish games.”

Hibbert asserted himself all night, filling the stat sheet with a season-high 27 points, 13 rebounds, and six blocked shots. But when his team needed him most, the self-proclaimed "Big Dawg" really rose to the occasion.

Take, for instance, this winning sequence:

6:18: With the Pacers trailing 86-83, Hibbert catches a feed from Paul George and muscles through Lavoy Allen for a basket and the foul. He sinks the free throw to tie the game.

5:56: Hibbert pulls down an Evan Turner miss and tosses the ball up the court, leading to a Paul George 3-pointer to give Indiana the lead 11 seconds later.

5:33: Hibbert contests Daniel Orton’s layup on the other end, forcing a miss. He grabs the rebound while drawing a foul on Orton in the process, then sinks both free throws on the other end to extend the lead to five.

5:00: After two missed free throws by Michael Carter-Williams, the Pacers regain possession. Paul George misses a long 3-pointer, but Hibbert snatches the ball off the rim.

4:56: Hibbert attacks the basket, drawing a foul on Turner. He sinks two more free throws to push the Pacers’ lead to seven. Philadelphia never gets within one possession the rest of the night. For good measure, Hibbert rejects Turner twice in the final four minutes.

It’s not quite eight points in nine seconds, but it was the key in lifting the Pacers to their 12th win in 13 games to open the season.

“Happy to see Roy Hibbert dominate on both ends of the floor,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s been dominant defensively all year, and when we need him to step up on the offensive end, he does. Big effort by him.”

That Hibbert was Saturday’s late-game hero is a pleasant surprise, and a testament to Indiana’s balance. Most regard Paul George as an emerging superstar, and he played like it earlier in the week, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime on Wednesday night to lift the Pacers past the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. But true championship contenders have multiple players who can make big plays in winning time. Hibbert proved up for the task on Saturday.

“Paul’s been playing great,” Hibbert said. “He’s a closer, he’s a starter, finisher, everything. Some nights other people are going to carry the load a little bit, just to make sure he can do it himself. Tonight was one of those nights.”

Hibbert may have been the star of the game, but he was far from the only contributor. All five starters finished in double figures. George scored 19. Lance Stephenson added 18. David West quietly had a double-double (17 points and 11 boards) while dishing out six assists. George Hill added 11 points, six rebounds, five assists, and one monster dunk on Evan Turner.

“You never know with this team,” Pacers reserve forward Chris Copeland said. “You got Paul, obviously tonight was Roy, we got David, we got Luis (Scola). You can go down the list. So many guys that can hurt and that can take over games whenever necessary. That’s a luxury, for sure.”

Philadelphia did not have that same luxury Saturday night. Playing without two key starters in Spencer Hawes (knee soreness) and Thaddeus Young (personal reasons) and dressing just nine players, the Sixers relied heavily on Turner, their leading scorer, and rookie sensation Carter-Williams. The duo almost willed their team to victory, combining for 50 points, 17 rebounds, and eight steals.

Philadelphia was derided nationally in the preseason as perhaps the worst team in the league, but even with injuries they’ve proven they can compete with the best. They won the respect of the Pacers locker room on Saturday, drawing praise from several sources.

The Pacers’ core has talked for much of this season – including in this week’s SportsCenter conversation with the starting five – about playing with a chip on their shoulders from perceived slights they’ve collectively received throughout their career. On Saturday, for once, they might have met a team with a bigger chip on their shoulder.

“They’re young and scrappy,” West said. “Nobody’s really given them a shot this season, so every game they’re just coming in, they’ve got the attitude they’re just going to go out and play hard. I thought they played harder than us for stretches, and that’s why it was a close game.”

Though the Sixers hung tough, the Pacers’ vast advantage in experience and comfort level playing together won out in the end. Indiana’s starting five logged more minutes together than any other five-man unit in the Eastern Conference last season. Conversely, Philadelphia features four rookies. Turner and Allen were the only two players who dressed Saturday that were with the organization last year.

“Our starting unit’s got a great cohesion, a great chemistry on both ends of the floor,” Vogel said. “But in particular on the defensive end, they were able to buckle down in crunch time and get stops.”

Combine that experience with Hibbert’s clutch performance, and you’ve got a winning formula.

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