Life for the ebbing Indiana Pacers will become a whole lot easier against the detonative Washington Wizards if Roy Hibbert can end his descent and emerge from this lasting rut a more confident, serviceable interior force.
Unsteady are the hands Hibbert uses these days. A disappointing regular season has been followed by languid playoff displays replete with awkward offense, nonexistent rebounding and games-long vanishing acts.
On some nights, you wouldn't know Hibbert plays if his timecard didn't say otherwise. His impact on the Pacers through their seven-game grind against the Atlanta Hawks was minimal, if not wrackful.
Facing a team that fielded smaller lineups, forced switches off screens and catered to contrived mismatches, Hibbert became a liability. Incapable of scoring and ostensibly unfit to rebound, he was $58 million of helpless, assuming the role of inflexible bystander not suited for a series demanding versatility and the ability to adapt.
As the Pacers showed, they can scrape by with Hibbert seldom meeting expectations. It won't be easy or pretty—or possible in haste—but the Eastern Conference is open enough for them to churn out victories in spite of his statistical plunge.
Though they face a more menacing opponent in Washington, the possibilities are similar. The Pacers can win four times without Hibbert. They can win with him playing lost, klutzy basketball. It can happen.
Winning merely becomes easier and more likely if Hibbert can rescue himself from his bottomless trough.
Let's list everything there was to like about Hibbert's play through Round 1:
- First-quarter performance in Game 7
And we're done.
Not one of Hibbert's first seven playoff games were the least bit encouraging. He was disastrous.
By series end, Hibbert was averaging 5.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks on 37.2 percent shooting in 21.9 minutes of action. The last 7-footer to average fewer than four rebounds while logging at least 20 minutes through six or more playoff games was Jason Collins in 2007. Only six total players standing 7 feet or taller have been so irrelevant on the glass in postseason history.
There was serious doubt head coach Frank Vogel would start or even play Hibbert in Game 7; that's how bad he was. The Pacers couldn't afford to have him on the floor for more than a few minutes at a time. Between Games 5 and 6, he played a combined 24 minutes.
Against what many considered better judgment, Vogel stuck with Hibbert in Game 7. For a brief moment, it looked like Hibbert was back. He played nearly nine first-quarter minutes, shot 4-of-5 from the floor for eight points and grabbed three rebounds.
In one quarter, he surpassed the production of his last two games (zero points, two rebounds).
First quarter notwithstanding, though, Hibbert wasn't great. He was better; he was adequate. While he swatted five shots through the final three quarters, he was just 2-of-5 from the field and grabbed only four more rebounds.
Compared to his recent foray into the ugly, he was a godsend. Compared to last year's playoff campaign, he remained equal parts blah and whatever.
|The Hibbert of Today and Yesterday|
|First 7 Playoff Games of...||MPG||PTS||FG%||REB||BLK||Def. Rtg.||Off. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Most of Hibbert's struggles were attributed to the Hawks. They were, in a way, his kryptonite.
The Pacers defense is designed to highlight his rim protection. All dribble drives are filtered through Hibbert. At times, they invite opponents to attack the paint, knowing full well a 7'2" giant is waiting under the basket.
But that's only effective when Hibbert can remain in the paint, which against the Hawks he couldn't. They put five shooters on the floor, forced him to step outside his comfort zone and introduced him to a world of perimeter shooting he was useless against.
Good news awaits the Pacers and Hibbert in Round 2 to that end. The Wizards ranked fourth in three-point percentage this past season (38 percent), but only 19th in attempts (20.8). Although they do employ floor-spacing lineups on occasion, they simultaneously run Marcin Gortat and Nene most of the time. Both bigs have more range than conventional turrets—like Hibbert—but he won't be chasing them off the three-point line.
Almost immediately, Hibbert should become more competent on defense. Rebounding will remain a concern since Washington is more deft on the glass than Atlanta, but there's value in being able to simply have Hibbert on the floor without worrying about him being destructive on both ends.
Anything he provides the Pacers with at this point is additional, much-needed, yet completely unexpected production.
One Less Concern
The Pacers shouldn't have to worry about Hibbert. They shouldn't have to worry about their $58 million investment remaining coordinated on offense and active on defense.
But they do. And that's in addition to everything else they must worry about.
Their offense is still a baffling and unhealthy goulash of erratic ball movement, conflicting individual agendas, unstructured playmaking and too much Paul George. They're not built for anything other than sloth-paced basketball. Vogel must somehow find a way for Evan Turner and Lance Stephenson to coexist in the same lineup.
Then there are the Wizards. They're a problem, too.
How do the Pacers stop them? Whose job is it to stop them?
Inviting dribble penetration—thereby playing to Hibbert's strengths—won't come without risk. Beal, Ariza and Martell Webster can all light it up from deep. Give them open looks, and they will convert.
Hibbert shouldn't be among concerns. Not pressing concerns.
The Pacers shouldn't have to wonder if he'll ever regain his touch around the rim. They shouldn't need to fear what will happen once Nene or Gortat forces Hibbert to defend outside eight feet. They shouldn't be entertaining the prospect of their All-Star big man being a little less dominant, and a little more Kwame Brown.
If and when Hibbert starts playing like Hibbert—or even half a Hibbert—the Pacers are free to focus on the issues they're supposed to have.
No Room for Error...Or Mercy
Despite their ability to dispatch Washington with a blundering Hibbert, the Pacers need him.
When Hibbert plays well, they play well. When he's an active member on the offensive end, they're far better off. They're 34-10 on the year—playoffs included—in games that Hibbert eclipses 10 points, 23-11 when he shoots 50 percent or better and 27-4 when he grabs at least eight rebounds.
The Pacers need that Hibbert to increase the ease with which they can make other adjustments. He doesn't have to be perfect; he doesn't even have to rival the Hibbert of last year's playoffs. They don't need him to be great. He just can't be horrible.
Performances similar to Hibbert's efforts in Game 7 must be the standard. That's not asking much.
Then again, yes it is.
Hibbert hasn't shown signs of life in forever. He closed out the regular season by shooting 37.4 percent in his final 20 games. One game—one mediocre game—as Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger reminds us, is not enough to declare Hibbert or the Pacers back from the dead:
Should this Game 7 victory convince you everything is hunky-dory with the Pacers and they’re still the Heat’s No. 1 challenger to a three-peat? Sure, if you also believe Kevin Durant is an unreliable basketball player.
One win doesn’t cure all, but it does keep the Pacers alive. The second round will show us if Indiana can be fully revived to contender form or if the team’s mad experiment gone wrong will be too much to overcome.
In the spirit of overcoming recent predicaments, there is no time for the Pacers to push forward with Hibbert if he fails them. He is out of second and third and 57th chances.
This is it for him.
The Pacers won't win starting Hibbert if their offense is 12.6 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor, as it was against Atlanta, per NBA.com (subscription required). Anything that suggests he's continuing down a path to nowhere must be taken seriously.
“Still a work in progress,” Hibbert conceded after Game 7, via Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. “We’re trying to keep working on it.”
In the absence of individual progress, there be can be no Hibbert. Benching him cannot be out of the question if it comes to that. Hibbert can either drastically improve the Pacers' playoff chances or continue aiding the demise that's put them in a position of unanticipated weakness.
The choice is his.