INDIANAPOLIS -- The largest obstacle standing between the defending back-to-back champions and a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals careened his neck down the court to Miami’s bench and checked, just to make sure, that Greg Oden wasn’t dressed in Heat road red.
Lineup cards already had been turned in by coaches Frank Vogel and Erik Spoelstra, so Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ 7-2 center, knew that Oden wasn’t playing. But Hibbert wanted to see Oden in business-casual attire with his own eyes.
In the back of Hibbert’s head throughout Tuesday was the idea that the Heat would attempt to pull a strategic fast one on the first-place Pacers and activate Oden for his first game of the season against the first-place Pacers.
Hibbert’s hunch was incorrect, but it was well founded all the same.
After all, the Heat signed Oden this offseason for one purpose, and that purpose was to give the Heat some muscle and height inside against Hibbert’s ever-growing repertoire of interior skills. As it turned out, Miami sorely lacked Oden’s presence — or any presence, really — in its first test of the season against what looks to be its only competition in the Eastern Conference.
Hibbert was masterful against his team’s nemesis, which showed the slightest signs of disrespect before the game by refusing to acknowledge any special feelings for the game between two teams that have faced each other in the playoffs in consecutive seasons, including last season’s dramatic seven-game series of the Eastern Conference finals. Hibbert roundly dominated the Heat on both ends of the court, scoring 24 points on 10 of 15 shooting and, defensively, helping to limit the Heat to 42.9 percent shooting.
And whereas the Heat played its mind games before the tipoff, Hibbert went to work on Miami’s psyche afterwards.
“When they go big-big instead of small-big with [Chris] Bosh and the Duke guy — what's his name? Oh, Shane Battier — it allowed me to roam free a little bit, Hibbert said.
“We always stay big and we make teams adjust to us.”
Clearly exhausted after a long road trip against some of the East’s most imposing power forwards, Battier went 1 of 6 from three-point range in less than 14 minutes. Meanwhile, Battier’s counterpart, power forward David West, was 6 of 8 from the field and 5 of 6 from the free-throw line in 33 minutes.
Surprisingly, the Heat’s most accomplished interior defender, Udonis Haslem, never stepped on the court.
“We’re not the team that we want to be in April right now, and that’s OK,” LeBron James said. “That’s exactly what we want. We want to continue to get better.”
For his part, Battier said his missed shots from the outside would haunt him for some time, or at least until the Heat plays the Cavaliers at AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday. Miami has three days off to contemplate and dissect its loss to Indiana, but it won’t take that long to process its shortcomings against the Pacers.
To that end, Hibbert’s needling of the Heat didn’t stop with “the Duke guy.” He made sure to call out Oden by name, and told reporters that he half expected the Heat’s always-inactive center to suit up on Tuesday.
“I’m gonna just keep asserting myself whenever I play against them,” Hibbert said. “But I’m really looking forward to matching up against Greg when he does play. He’s such a big impact, a big impressive presence. When he gets healthy, we can battle a little bit.”
When will Oden play for the Heat? That’s unclear.
Spoelstra has not stated a timetable for Oden’s return and that might be because there simply isn’t one. He could be ready to play next week or he could be resigned to the bench until February or beyond.
The Heat will not allow Oden to speak with reporters, but James spoke on his behalf after the loss.
Will Oden make a difference against the Pacers?
“We hope so,” James said. “We hope so.”
Until hope turns into something real, Hibbert will continue staring at the end of the Heat’s bench.