SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest question of the day. Today, we examine …
Which Pacers player is most critical to the team's comeback chances?
Lee Jenkins: All five starters. This is one problem with the Pacers. They're all critical, or at least all of them in the starting lineup. Indiana doesn't have the kind of top-tier talent that Miami does, or Oklahoma City does. No starter was drafted in the top-9. If I had to pick a name, I'd go with Paul George, because he is most capable of creating his own offense and taking over a seesaw fourth quarter. But they also need Roy Hibbert to exploit what should be an offensive mismatch and Lance Stephenson to build off the momentum of Game 5 rather than slide back to the stagnation of Game 4. The Pacers pushed the Heat in last year's playoffs, and jumped out to the best record in the league this season, because they were a true team. They could not depend on one player to bail them out. They were all essential, and they knew it, a realization that sparked an esprit de corps. That quality, amorphous but essential, is what's most critical to their cause.
Ben Golliver: Roy Hibbert. Well isn't this an optimistic question? After all the nonsense and insanity of Game 5, it would be downright shocking if the Heat don't plaster the Pacers by double digits at home in Game 6. I'm fully prepared for a repeat of Game 7 of the 2013 East finals, and Lance Stephenson's ear blow should give LeBron James all the motivation he needs to bounce back from a foul-plagued rough night. With James sure to in attack mode, Indiana's only hope is to get a transcendent performance from Hibbert on the defensive end and on the glass, the type of paint dominance that frustrates Miami and forces them to over-rely on their shooters. Can the up-and-down Hibbert really save Indiana's season? I guess we'll see.
Phil Taylor: Roy Hibbert. If the Pacers are going to beat Miami twice, Hibbert absolutely cannot pull another one of his disappearing acts. He's been scoreless in four postseason games, including Indiana's Game 4 loss in this series, and he's scored in single digits in nine of Indiana's 18 playoff games, with Indiana going 3-6. It's not just that the offensively-challenged Pacers need his points, or that he's the key to making Miami pay for going with a small lineup. It's that when Hibbert isn't engaged on offense, he's usually not doing much of anything else -- like rebounding or defending aggressively -- either. When he starts bobbling entry passes and bricking short jump hooks, signs of Pacer dysfunction bubble up. They get tense. You can see the bad body language and the looks of frustration with each other start to show. But when the good Hibbert shows up, rebounding and protecting the rim, Indiana plays with more confidence and trust. He doesn't have to be the best player on the floor for the Pacers to complete the comeback, but Hibbert can't go back to being a 7'2" zero anymore, or the Pacers have no chance.
Matt Dollinger: Paul George. What was every NBA fan saying after the Pacers' Game 5 win on Wednesday? "Oh, well you know LeBron James is going to drop 40 points in Game 6." There's one Pacer tasked with guarding the best player in the world coming off one of the most frustrating games of his career: it's Paul George. George will have a tough time topping his performance in Game 5, scoring 37 points and helping stifle James and contribute to his five fouls, but Indiana isn't going to avoid elimination if he doesn't reach that level again. LeBron is simply too powerful for Lance Stephenson to be able to slow his drives and has the ability to shoot over the 6-foot-5 guard, as well. George might be the best equipped defender in the league to guard LeBron and has done an admirable job this season. For the Pacers to stay alive, they need George to continue his elite defense of LeBron and chip in, oh, 30-plus points along the way. Should be easy.
Richard Deitsch: Roy Hibbert. I expect Paul George to show up on Friday. Same with David West. And I've given up on predicting what Lance Stephenson will do at any time during the day or night. But the Pacers cannot win this series -- and I don't think they can regardless -- unless Hibbert offers something close to what he did in Game One (19 points, nine rebounds and 9 of 13 from the line). That was Indiana's most dominant game of the series and it coincided with Hibbert being impactful on offense. Since the opening game, Hibbert has attempted just nine free throws. In Game Four, he scored zero points in 22 minutes. He needs to stay out of foul trouble, but more importantly, Frank Vogel needs to have confidence in running plays for him early in the game. If Hibbert is not engaged on offense, Indiana is going home.
Chris Johnson: Paul George. The Pacers can hope for more consistency from Roy Hibbert, or a more focused approach from Lance Stephenson, or better production from their bench. All of which will help against a Miami team poised to close out this series in six games. But what Indiana needs more than anything else – what could allow it to extend this to seven – is another monster performance from Paul George. With LeBron James registering 24 minutes and career postseason-low seven points, George seized control of Game 5 by scoring 21 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter. The problem? It’s extremely unlikely James will score fewer than 10 points again this postseason. Count on him having another big game Friday night. To have any hope of sending this series back to Indiana, the Pacers will need George to do the same.
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