Pacers Play Throwback Ball—Just Don't Tell Them That
Don’t tell Roy Hibbert he’s a throwback center and expect to get away with it. Yes, the 7-foot-2, 290-pound center plays his position like they did in generations gone by—far different than the majority of bigs in the NBA today. But that doesn’t mean he’s a throwback. It means he’s doing exactly what the Pacers have found works best for their own success, and he—like the rest of his teammates on the East’s best squad—have all bought in.
“I don’t go in there and say I have to be a throwback or this, that or the other. I just, we play the game the way that, we play smash-mouth basketball,” Hibbert said. “That’s how we play together, and that’s how we figured out we can win.”
When the Pacers come to town tonight to face the Timberwolves (tipoff set for 7 PM on Fox Sports North, ESPN and 830 WCCO-AM), they’ll bring a 41-12 record they built by unconventional standards in today’s NBA. They can score, but they don’t rely on it. They give up 90.5 points per game, best in the NBA and FAR below the league average, and they also lead the league in opponent team shooting percentage, defensive efficiency and opponent true shooting percentage.
Built behind Hibbert and David West in the starting five and Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi off the bench, the Pacers have a foundation inside that can bruise you with their physicality, can’t be moved in the screen/roll game, pound the boards and protect the rim.
Not a bad combination of talents, especially in a league that today is based more in the quality rather than quantity of bigs who can do just that.
“I think it’s a premium—it’s a luxury,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “We have four really strong bigs. They help establish the type of play we have.”
Minnesota catches Indiana at a poor time given center Nikola Pekovic—one of the centers in this league that physically matches up with Hibbert’s style of play, is still out with an ankle injury. If he were healthy, the Wolves’ lineup of Pekovic and Kevin Love gives Minnesota an offensive tandem in the front court that would give Indiana’s Hibbert/West lineup on the defensive end a challenge throughout the night. Those two average nearly 44 points and 22 rebounds per game combined.
Ever since Pekovic gained more and more minutes two years ago, Hibbert has been complimentary of Pekovic’s game and what he brings alongside Love on the offensive end. Back then, he called them the dynamic duo. On Friday over All-Star Weekend, he echoed those words.
“That’s a tough lineup right there,” Hibbert said. “Pek is pretty strong, and I feel like Kevin has magnets in his hands. The ball goes right into his hands with offensive rebounds. They’re a pretty tough duo, and I mean for two guys that are about 6-8, 6-9, they’re pretty tough to keep out of the paint.”
It’s almost a refreshing sign to see the Pacers playing so well predicated on interior defense and smash-mouth physicality. In this day and age, so much emphasis is put on perimeter athleticism and the 3-point shot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but few teams have found a way to mesh the tendencies and successes of decades past with today’s game like the Pacers. Indiana does have a wealth of athleticism on the wing with Paul George and Lance Stephenson as well as a talented point guard in George Hill, but the foundation that team is built on is the intensity and mentality they all share in the paint.
That’s something we haven’t seen in a while.
Over All-Star Weekend, Dwight Howard started rallying off who he thought would fit on the “Wall of Bigs”—an ode to the best big men in NBA history, considering there were too many to place in a Mount Rushmore (he said his one day would be Shaq, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and himself), but Patrick Ewing, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming and so many others would need to make that list.
Dominique Wilkins said on Friday at All-Star Weekend those names—some of whom he played against—were so dominant in their eras. Times have changed today.
“They’re smaller—if you look at every team in the NBA, every team had at two or three 7-footers,” Wilkins said. “The league, it was a big league back then. And skilled big men who could score on the box. You had to play defense. You look at Karl Malone, Hakeem the Dream, David Robinson, Ewing, it goes on and on. Guys that could play on that box and you had to play defense. They wasn’t shooting jump shots.”
Think about those origins of interior play when you watch the Pacers tonight. They’ve found the ability to mesh that type of physical game from years past with the stretch game of today.
Not that they’re trying to do any of that. They’ve simply found the right recipe for success with a talented group of players.
“I love the old school feel, but I’m not really against small ball,” Vogel said. “I think the way our team is built is the way I would build it. Some teams that don’t have Roy Hibbert and David West, I might play small ball. But those guys are some of the best big guys in the game. They help establish our identity, and I’m certainly fortunate to have those guys on our roster.”