Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade nearly ran out of adjectives.
First, he used great. Then phenomenal.
And finally awesome.
That was how he described the way Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert played against the Heat in last year's Eastern Conference finals. With the teams set to meet again, the focus is on how Miami plans to avoid a repeat performance. The series opens Sunday with Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"That was the best he's played in a seven-game stretch versus anybody," Wade said. "He's very tough. We've got to be prepared for anything."
Hibbert made a name for himself against the Heat a year ago. He was the reason the Pacers pushed Miami to seven games, producing one of the most dominating performances for a big man in postseason history.
Hibbert averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds, falling just short of leading the Pacers to an upset. The effort was part of the reason the Heat coveted centers in the offseason. It ultimately led to them signing Greg Oden.
"He caught it where he wanted it," Heat center Chris Bosh said. "We're going to have to make sure that we don't give up those same opportunities. All of his shots were 10 feet and in. If we give him a steady dose of that, it's going to be the same way. We feel that was the reason it was pushed so far last year. We're going to have to do a job on him but it's a team effort."
Hibbert's play has typically determined the winning team. In Indiana's two victories during the regular season, he averaged 22.5 points on 58 percent shooting. He averaged just 5.5 points in the Pacers' two losses to Miami.
Coach Erik Spoelstra refused to make it about the Heat versus Hibbert. Forward Udonis Haslem is expected to draw the defensive assignment. Haslem has been successful in the past, including this season. The 7-foot-2 Hibbert has a six-inch height advantage in the matchup.
"The most important thing about heading into this series is can we get into our game," Spoelstra said. "It's not about each individual matchup. I know those are compelling but the most important thing is are we getting into our game more consistently than they're getting into theirs. It's two very different styles of basketball. That will determine the outcome of the series."
Hibbert has struggled of late, especially in the postseason. His problems began the last month of the regular season and spilled into the playoffs. He's been arguably the most criticized player in the league because of his poor play. The top-seeded Pacers were nearly eliminated in the first round, needing seven games to defeat the Atlanta Hawks. Hibbert took most of the blame after averaging just 5.3 points and 3.7 rebounds.
In Games 5 and 6, he went scoreless. He then finished with zero points and zero rebounds in a loss to the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. There was even talk of Pacers coach Frank Vogel benching Hibbert.
It never happened after Hibbert responded with a 28-point, nine-rebound performance in Game 2. Still he has hardly been the player he was last year against the Heat.
"He's an All-Star for a reason," Heat forward LeBron James said. "He played great against us last year in the Eastern Conference finals and we know that. He knows that as well. Who cares about the struggles that he's had. We'll be ready for him."
The Heat are preparing for the player they saw a year ago. With such high stakes, they expect Hibbert to show up.
"You can't depend on a guy struggling to win a series," Wade said. "You've got to think that everyone is going to be at their best."
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