And Roy Hibbert had almost nothing to do with it.
The big man's scoreless 27 minutes shouldn't have been stunning, considering his well-documented decline in recent weeks. The Pacers' troublingly poor stretch of late has coincided almost exactly with Hibbert's game falling off a cliff.
Since the All-Star break, the Pacers' net rating has been in the red at minus-2.7 points per 100 possessions, but it's been even worse when Hibbert has been on the floor, sitting at minus-3.4, per NBA.com. That's a long way to fall for a guy who was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and perhaps even one who warranted a slight mention in the MVP conversation back in January.
I've been making the case all year that the Pacers shouldn't be wholly defined by what they've done since the All-Star break, and that same logic should apply to Hibbert.
But it's extremely difficult to argue that point after watching Hibbert's performance in the early going against the Thunder:
Hibbert would take (and miss) two more shots on the day, finishing at 0-of-9 from the field and contributing just six rebounds to the cause. It was a rough performance. So rough, in fact, that little-used Ian Mahinmi saw major playing time ahead of Hibbert in the second half.
In the continuation of an ongoing trend, Mahinmi outplayed his starting counterpart:
We know sample size matters more than recent performance in evaluating a team's chances for playoff success, and Indy turned in a 52-game stretch before the All-Star break in which it was the league's most dominant outfit. That sample should inform our playoff predictions more than the 29 contests since the break, no matter how bad the latter stretch has been.
That's the logical approach, the one supported by numbers and historical precedent. It gives the Pacers as much hope for a turnaround as their statement win over OKC.
But it's harder to apply that approach to Hibbert. The guy just looks lost:
Hibbert's play has been horrible, and it has undoubtedly had a negative effect on his team. Force-feeding him in an effort to get him involved has been a problem for Indy's offense all year, and it was evident in the early going against the Thunder:
That's a subtler symptom of the center's negative impact on his team, but the overall statistical picture is obvious. Hibbert has been terrible for a few months now.
His demeanor during said terrible stretch has only made things worse. Whether taking shots at the "selfish dudes" on his team or openly pouting when not getting enough touches of his own, Hibbert's attitude has been a problem.
We want to challenge him every time and test his conditioning level. If he is going to be down there every time we are going to make him work. I think before we were trying to avoid putting him in pick-and-roll situations and (Friday) I think we just attacked him a lot more.
At the risk of engaging in armchair psychology, it's interesting to note Hibbert is lashing out when his own confidence seems to be at a low point. Maybe that behavior is a coping mechanism. Maybe it's simply frustration boiling over.
Whatever the case, Hibbert is not helping the Pacers. The numbers show it, and his attitude drives home the point.
Perhaps the huge win over the Thunder will take some of the pressure off, but you have to wonder how Hibbert will react after having almost no influence on that outcome.
What if Sunday's win only makes things worse?
Reason to Hope?
Even if it seems crazy, the sample-size logic saying Indy is closer to being a contender than its recent play shows should also apply to Hibbert himself. We'll just have to get over his abject failure on the eye test.
We've seen Hibbert's immense impact before, and it's not like there are years of intervening underperformance or a significant injury separating us from that period. It only seems like ancient history because of how drastic the change has been, but Hibbert was an absolute beast just a few months ago.
He can be one again.
Not through scoring or as some kind of focal point on the block—that's never been his game. But as he gets a little more time to rest his overtaxed legs with off days in the playoffs, he can turn back into the singular defensive force he was earlier this season.
Remember, the Pacers are here, just a single win away from clinching the No. 1 seed in the East, despite Hibbert's atrocious play. And they're 35-6 at home, which makes that top seed all the more valuable.
It's possible Hibbert is a lost cause. After watching him on Sunday, it's hard to discount that chance.
But perhaps its equally possible—if not more likely—that he's actually capable of regaining his confidence, resting up and looking more like the DPOY candidate he was back in January. If Indiana can beat an excellent Thunder team without Hibbert offering any contributions, what might it do with the big man at full strength and in the right mental state?
In that sense, Hibbert might not be the guy holding the Pacers back. He might be the guy who propels them forward.
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