To know Roy Hibbert is to love him, and hate him.
Anyone who has spent time watching the Indiana Pacers knows how important Hibbert is to their success. They also know just how infuriating he can be.
As Indiana attempts to battle its way past the New York Knicks and into the Eastern Conference Finals, the latter must be ignored. The Pacers need to perch themselves upon his back and ride him into the next round.
Against New York, Indiana needs its other players as well. We're above believing otherwise. But against the Knicks, he's the barometer through which the Pacers must be measured against.
During the regular season, Hibbert averaged 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game on 44.8 percent shooting. His performance, to say the least, was tepid.
After signing a four-year deal worth $58 million, his field-goal percentage plummeted, and he was playing fewer minutes than the season before. That's not what the Pacers were looking for. They thought he was prepared to make the jump to stardom and be someone they could build around. He wasn't supposed to struggle in the first year of a massive new deal.
But he did, and his resolve as a premier big man was questioned as a result. Was he someone who could help Indiana contend, or was he more likely to emerge a 7'2" worth of disappointment?
His postseason performance would answer that question by either quelling it or fueling its intensity. If he is able to lead the Pacers past the Knicks, the former will seem like a joke.
Hibbert hasn't been what you would consider dominant during these playoffs. He remains an inconsistent force on the offensive end, and there are times when he disappears on the glass.
For the most part, however, he's been much better than the Hibbert we saw during the regular season. His minutes have increased, and he's averaging 14.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 50 percent shooting per game. His touch around the rim appears to be rounding into form, and when he's not actually blocking shots, he's forcing mid-air adjustments. And through the postseason thus far, the Pacers are outscoring their opponents by 19.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
He's simply been better.
Would I call him the most valuable player on the Pacers? You could certainly make that case, but there's no question how much Paul George means to Indiana. For the series against the Knicks, though, he's the most vital of components because of the impact he stands to make.
In Game 1, Hibbert went 6-of-9 from the field for 14 points and added 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 blocks. His efficiency from the field was a welcomed commodity—the Pacers were 26-9 during the regular season when he shot 50 percent or better from the floor—but it was his defense that really set the tone.
Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith combined to go 14-of-43 from the field, much of which had to do with Hibbert. He was contesting shots at the rim, and the Pacers weren't allowing many easy baskets as a result.
Melo specifically struggled against Hibbert's interior defense. He only shot 3-of-12 at the rim (25 percent). Per hoopdata.com, he converted on over 54 percent of his attempts near the basket during the regular season.
The Knicks as a team didn't fare much better than Anthony, either. New York took 30 total shots at the rim and connected on just 13 of them (43.3 percent). That's the type of impact Hibbert has. He defends the rim perfectly, which is why the Pacers essentially "invite" opponents to attack it.
Hibbert is great at going straight up, positioning himself in such a way that blocking fouls becomes difficult to call. And for the Knicks, that's a problem.
As we saw in Game 1, the Pacers are going to do all they can to take away New York's deep ball. The Knicks attempted 28.9 three-pointers per game during the regular season, but they were held to just 19 against Indiana.
It wasn't that New York shot a bad clip from beyond the arc. The Knicks hit on 36.8 percent of their treys, a respectable number. Instead, the Pacers attempted to remove the deep ball from their arsenal entirely, hounding them on the perimeter and even leaving certain penetration lanes open, just begging the Knicks to attack it. And they did—Melo did.
Indiana's game plan isn't suddenly going to change either. The postseason is all about adjustments, but at the moment, the Knicks are the ones that need to do the adjusting. Either they resort to hoisting up more (contested) threes, or they take their chances down low against a shot-blocking connoisseur in Hibbert.
Who is the Pacers' most important player in their series against the Knicks?
New York chose the former in Game 1—focusing their offense inside the rainbow—and got burned. Saving for an early offensive run (and a few late buckets down the stretch), Indiana's defense was in control—Hibbert was in control.
That's how the Pacers are going to have to win this series, by relying on Hibbert to suppress New York's offensive attack. We've seen how Indiana can outscore their opponents, but its offense has proved inconsistent. Defense is how the Pacers are going to win this series. Eliminating easy looks at the rim is how they'll emerge victorious.
And that begins with Hibbert. Indiana's ability to win starts with him.
The Pacers are hoping the Knicks' season ends with him, too.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and hoopdata.com unless otherwise noted.