Pacers formidable without big man

MIAMI -- Much of the narrative that has made this Heat-Pacers tale so compelling over the last two seasons has been the role of Roy Hibbert.

He's supposed to be what makes these teams so even. Hibbert goes from statistically ordinary – or even south of ordinary depending on your standards – against the rest of the league to downright dominant against a Heat interior lacking the height or girth to disrupt him. It sounds far too simple to say one player would have that kind of impact, but the numbers appeared to bear that out.

The 7-foot-2 Hibbert averaged 22.1 points on 56 percent shooting and 10.4 rebounds in last season's seven-game conference finals after a regular season that saw him put up 11.9 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 8.3 rebounds.

Well, consider Wednesday night's 97-94 Heat win over the Pacers something of a counterargument.

A fairly convincing one, too.

You can credit the continued growth of Paul George, the improved Pacers bench, an increased confidence level stemming from last season's playoffs or all of the above, but it's no longer just Hibbert making life miserable for the Miami Heat.

In fact, Hibbert played just 23 minutes due to consistent foul trouble and contributed a total of six points, two rebounds and one blocked shot in that time.

And though his overall plus-minus was just a minus-2 when the dust settled, the Pacers managed to twice extend leads to double figures after Hibbert was forced to the bench.

So while the AmericanAirlines Arena was taking particular pleasure in Hibbert picking up his second foul in the first quarter and his fifth foul early in the third quarter (perhaps that food poisoning Pacers coach Frank Vogel was fighting off affected his judgment for just a split second when he chose to leave Hibbert in the game with four third-quarter fouls), there's far more to Miami beating these Pacers than just taking the big man out of the game.

"We're a complete team," Vogel said. "Our guys stepped up."

In fact, the Pacers made their two most significant runs with Hibbert on the bench. The first came in the 5 minutes, 30 seconds following Hibbert's exit with two fouls. That's when the Pacers extended a one-point lead to a 36-24 advantage.

And here's who did the damage during that stretch: Lance Stephenson, Rasual Butler, C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola.

That list includes three players who weren't on the Pacers last season, one (Stephenson) who was once considered as dangerous to the Pacers as he was to their opponents, and Mahinmi, who's a nice reserve to have available but is a far less intimidating option than Hibbert.

Actually, if you listen to George, Mahinmi is just as intimidating as the center he plays behind.

In one sentence, George called Hibbert "the best rim protector in the league." Then moments later he called Mahinmi "as good a rim protector as Roy."

So by George's measure, the Pacers actually have the top two rim protectors in the NBA.

Of course, not many would agree with George's assessment, but the point is this group is quite comfortable even when Mahinmi fills in for the Heat's biggest nemesis of the past seven months.

The next Hibbert-less Pacers run came when the big man went to the bench with a silly fifth foul with Indy leading by nine. Within two minutes, Indiana actually extended its lead to 66-51, its largest advantage of the game.

And in the final 6:12 of the game, Hibbert was on the floor as Miami pulled off a 19-10 finishing run to snatch a difficult victory.

Yes, the Pacers allowed a season-high 50 points in the paint, which had plenty to do with Hibbert playing less than half the game. And yes, the Heat had more success on drives with Hibbert off the floor (13 of 20 field goals made) than with him on the floor (8 of 22). But that doesn't change the fact the Pacers displayed an ability to play with, and sometimes outplay, Miami without their primary anchor.

And it's safe to say George's emergence as a true go-to option against any style of defense is mostly what makes that possible.

For the second straight game against Miami, George did the majority of his damage in the second half, this time scoring 18 points of his 25 with three assists, four rebounds and two steals in the second half Wednesday. He went from a player who looked a bit rattled and sloppy early on to a player who believes himself to be LeBron James' peer in the second half. "You just can't lose track of him," James said of George. "His first 3 in the third quarter was a miscommunication between me and Rio, and he knocked one down. Then he had one in transition, similar to what Ray [Allen] had [late in the fourth quarter]. Once a scorer sees the ball go through the rim, it opens up more and more.

"He was able to get a pull-up on a [crossover], get to the free throw line, get an and-one off an offensive rebound [and pass] from Mahinmi. I could play all the plays back in my head. He was able to get a good rhythm."

And frankly, this outcome could've been entirely different -- and the ensuing narrative along with it -- had one more whistle been blown in the closing seconds.

His team trailing by three with the final seconds ticking off the clock, George used a screen from David West to get James behind him, then caught a pass off the curl and leaned in for a potential game-tying 3-pointer.

Except George wasn't so much leaning as he was helped forward by a James forearm to his lower back. George said he was "setting that up, because I knew he was going to trail me hard." Replays show James contacting George and seemingly disrupting what would've already been a difficult shot.

There was no whistle, which George made perfectly clear was upsetting to him. But despite a disastrous final three minutes and a frustrating final few seconds, George doesn't see much reason to be disappointed overall.

Because he left Miami seeing his team as an equal to the two-time defending champs. With good reason.

"We don't feel good about losing, but we feel good about the way we played up until the last two or three minutes," George said. "We played a great game, we shared the ball, we attacked them the way we wanted to attack them, which is to draw a double-team and kick to the next man. We limited our turnovers. It's just that last two or three minutes.

"These losses will only make us compete even harder."

That's hard to imagine given how hard Indiana has been playing this season, with the clear goal of grabbing the No. 1 seed in the East. And it won't help that the rematch with Miami won't come for another three months, which even James said was "kind of sad."

But George and Co. know this much. When they do return to face Miami, the Pacers' success won't hinge strictly on a giant named Hibbert.