By Bryan Gaskins
Tribune sports editor
For the better part of the NBA season, ESPN devoted all kinds of time on SportsCenter episodes to replays of two dunks. Anyone who watches any ESPN at all surely knows the two to which I’m referring: 6-foot-11 DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers posterizing 6-3 Brandon Knight of the Detroit Pistons, and 6-8 LeBron James of the Miami Heat hammering home a dunk over 6-2 Jason Terry of the Boston Celtics.
Day after day, ESPN commentators lavished endless praise, which quickly grew tiresome. The dunks were strong, but Jordan and James were much taller and heavier than Knight and Terry and the dunkers also caught perfect alley-oop passes with the defenders in poor positions to defend. Still, ESPN commentators loved these plays.
I kept wondering if a great defensive play would receive the same kind of love.
Of course, that was a silly thought, which I learned over the weekend.
Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert had a terrific defensive play against the New York Knicks in a high-stakes game on Saturday night. The Knicks needed to win the game to keep the series alive and they seemed to have the momentum. They were up 92-90 with the ball midway through the fourth quarter. Star forward Carmelo Anthony beat Indiana ballhawk Paul George off the dribble and attacked the basket as Hibbert slid over. Anthony jumped first, going up for a dunk with plenty of momentum. The 7-2 Hibbert went up and blocked the 6-8 Anthony’s attempt above the rim. Hibbert used his left hand and incredible strength to swat away the attempt.
It was an absolutely perfect block — and it sparked a 9-0 run that propelled the Pacers to a 106-99 win that clinched the series.
I thought it was one of the best plays in recent memory considering all of the circumstances. ESPN loudmouths Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith thought otherwise.
Bayless tweeted during the game: “Hibbert block wasn’t THAT great. He’s 6 inches taller than Melo ...”
Smith struck a similar tone following the game while making an appearance on SportsCenter.
“It was a pivotal play in the game, no doubt about it, but I’m not about to throw him a cookie. He is 7-feet-2 for crying out loud,” said Smith, a Knicks fan who was downright bitter about his team losing.
Wow. Just wow.
ESPN is known for favoring offensive highlights, superstar players and big-market teams. Obviously, Hibbert and the Pacers meet none of the criteria. Still, I was shocked to see two prominent ESPN commentators so openly downplay a great play simply because of Hibbert’s height advantage. Where was that argument when Jordan dunked on Knight, or when James dunked on Terry?
For good measure, SportsCenter deemed Hibbert’s block unworthy of the No. 1 spot on its Top 10 list of highlights from the weekend.
Of course, the Pacers are playing on and that is all that matters. Former team executive Larry Bird put together a squad full of two-way players. The commitment to defense is a joy to watch. And as veteran forward David West said after Saturday’s win, “This is the most together group I’ve been part of. ... We don’t have ‘I’ guys, we have a bunch of ‘we’ guys.”
I’m predicting the Pacers to give the defending champion Miami Heat a battle in the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat will thrive with their ability to score off turnovers. The Pacers will have a big advantage inside with Hibbert and West. The Heat have the best player in the world in James. The Pacers have an emerging star in George.
The Eastern finals should be entertaining. I’ll just stay clear of ESPN’s post-game coverage.
Bryan Gaskins is the Tribune’s sports editor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 765-454-8567.