The Magic basket used to be protected by the equivalent of a crocodile-infested moat. Then Dwight Howard suffered a back injury and underwent season-ending surgery. What should have been an intriguing matchup has turned into an exhibition for Roy Hibbert.
His collection of 18 points on 10 shots, 10 rebounds (five offensive) and three blocks did not begin to explain the harm Hibbert caused to Orlando in the third quarter of Indiana's 97-74 win in Game 3 Wednesday. The Pacers are up 2-1 and headed for a second-round return to Florida -- where they'll play a bit further south against a more threatening opponent in Miami -- because the 7-foot-2 Hibbert came up big against a team that has shrunk without Howard.
For these three playoff games the overachieving Magic have been fighting to prove themselves in the absence of their dominant teammate, who, depending on rhythms unknown to the rest of us, has wanted or not wanted to play among them. Many of the Magic have also been trying to win on behalf of coach Stan Van Gundy, who may or may not be fired after this troubled season. But there is only so much they can do with a big-man rotation of Glen Davis, whose girth is more substantial than his length; Ryan Anderson, whose preference to play outside the three-point line was affirmed by his production of one rebound in 32:24 of ineffective play; and Earl Clark, who has yet to define his value but has to play all the same.
Not only were they in over their heads against Hibbert, who was an All-Star this year, but they also were unable to demand a lot of help against him because four other Pacers were scoring in double figures. Indiana coach Frank Vogel enjoys pointing out that his team's strength is the balance of its starting five, and with Danny Granger on his way to 26 points -- to go with 15 from George Hill, 12 from Paul George and 10 from Darren Collison -- and all night that force of balance combined with the ever-present threat of David West to create openings for Hibbert.
"The way we were moving the ball was great," Hibbert said. "Everybody was getting touches and everybody was doing what they had to do."
Davis and Anderson appeared to settle for defending Hibbert by positioning their jaws to be met by his elbow as he spun to complete his moves from the post. It worked painfully enough to draw a couple of offensive fouls from Hibbert, but there are other things he can do. A lot of other things. And these were among the things he did from midway through the third quarter:
He spun Davis out of balance on the right side, freezing him as Hibbert shot-put a simple 8-footer from the baseline. Then he spun to his left around Anderson for a layup as if he were being guarded by a Pacers assistant during the pregame warmup. He rejected an 18-foot jumper by Clark, and then from the left block he thumbed Leandro Barbosa away to the far side until Granger could make his way over for a kick-out three-pointer. He rebounded an errant West drive, planted both feet and dunked so hard that the officials had to stop play until the woozy basket regained its balance of tranquility. "I haven't had a dunk in, like, 15 games," Hibbert said.
Within that span of domination, the Indiana lead swelled from 10 points to 76-53.
"He was aggressive where he needed to be aggressive, and he was getting to the spots where he needed to get to," said West, the Pacers' power forward. "He was not just relying on his size but on his abilities."
The Magic stole Game 1 in Indiana by scoring the last 11 points, but Van Gundy is running out of ways to keep up. The Pacers stubbornly defended Orlando at the three-point line while keeping Hibbert at home to defend the basket. Along the way, they enabled Davis (10-of-18 overall) to make a number of line-drive jumpers from the elbow, but Indiana was confident of surviving his 22 points as long as the normally explosive Magic were shooting a feeble 5-of-15 from the arc.
"We didn't play well at either end of the floor," Van Gundy said.
He acknowledged that only Davis (via the pick-and-pop) and sixth man J.J. Redick (who went 6-of-12 by working hard with and without the ball) were able to create shots, which led Van Gundy to suggest that changes will be coming to the starting lineup in hopes of preventing the Pacers from running out to the 11-point lead in the first quarter that established the terms of this game. His undersized Magic shot 42.3 percent, were outrebounded 46-33 and outblocked 5-1, and it wasn't because Van Gundy was outcoached, even though he said he had been.
Vogel has succeeded in keeping his Pacers focused and disciplined since the collapse of Game 1. Now the young Pacers, who haven't won a playoff series since 2005, need to show maturity by seizing a 3-1 lead here Saturday. "We're at our best when we're pushing the tempo," Vogel said.
West will be urging them to keep pushing. "We still have a lot to correct," he insisted.
This is not the kind of talk the Magic will want to hear, though it shouldn't surprise them either. As impressive as the Pacers were while never surrendering the lead, they've yet to play their best. Game 4 awaits.