It had to happen sooner or later. Roy Hibbert was due for a big game—or really, any kind of game in which he wasn't terrible. He'd been beaten up in headlines, discussed constantly by teammates and coach alike.
The 7'2" towering center was at an all-time low.
Wednesday night changed all that, if only for a moment.
Roy Hibbert leads Pacers to win over Wizards in Game 2. Hibbert: 28 Pts (10-13 FG), 9 Reb, Indiana evens series at 1. pic.twitter.com/OFv0B7z4cB— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 8, 2014
Roy Hibbert's 28 points are a season high— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2014
We all knew something was going on as early as the first half.
Roy Hibbert has more points in 11 minutes tonight (13) than in all four Indy playoff losses combined (12).— Evans Clinchy (@evansclinchy) May 7, 2014
This is Hibbert's first 15-point game since March 31st... and he still has a half to go.— Derek Schultz (@Schultz1260) May 7, 2014
Even if you thought Hibbert would eventually figure things out, no one saw this coming.
The season-high performance couldn't have come at a better time for head coach Frank Vogel's club. The Indiana Pacers were in an 0-1 hole against the Washington Wizards and desperately needed to win their second home game.
Making matters potentially worse, Paul George struggled in Game 2, making just five of his 13 field-goal attempts for 11 points.
Hibbert was also on the verge of irrelevance yet again. He scored no points in Game 1, the third time in four games he'd come up empty. What looked like a promising 13-point and seven-rebound Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks seemed a distant memory after Game 1 against the Wizards.
Hibbert wasn't quite right—not yet.
Well, it's hard to know what to make of this.
Prior to Game 1, the Pacers—including Hibbert—were all saying the right things.
"I'm a professional. And I need to figure it out," he told reporters.
"We're at a point where we're really going to need Roy. And we really need him now," Paul George said.
The collective desperation had reached a boiling point. It was probably never fair to pin all of the Pacers' struggles on Hibbert, but he's been the easy target. He's become emblematic of a team suffering from an identity crisis, a dangerous case of amnesia.
Whoever the Pacers were back in November and December seems a distant, foggy memory.
They've become a squad defined by struggle. The personnel remains largely the same. The play-calling hasn't changed.
Yet something's very different about these Pacers. Hibbert is chief among those differences.
The collective discombobulation first emerged in March. The Pacers went 8-10 for the month. Star swingman Paul George made just 37 percent of his field-goal attempts. The slide had officially begun, and it's reared its head to varying degrees ever since.
It doesn't take a shrink to surmise that something's been wrong with the Pacers' heads.
First among the potential causes was Larry Bird's decision to trade longtime Pacer Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Evan Turner. George took the news especially hard, and the team seemed subsequently downtrodden.
The Pacers harbored no ill will toward their new teammate. It was just that Granger had been with the team for so long. He'd witnessed Indiana's evolution into a legitimate contender, its core's growth and maturation. He'd become a staple.
There were also distractions haunting the locker room.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner got into a heated practice exchange with the playoffs just around the corner. Whether a cause or symptom of Indiana's nervous breakdown, it was evidence that something was awry.
The chemistry that had made this team so dominant was coming apart at the seams.
Then there was the move to sign Andrew Bynum.
Acquiring Bynum – at a reported $1 million guaranteed for the balance of 2013-14 – was a gamble by Bird that didn’t pay off. But it might have cost the Pacers more than money. Center Roy Hibbert‘s ongoing tailspin coincides with Bynum’s arrival, so much that some team insiders have wondered if the move rattled Hibbert’s confidence and trust.
As CBSSports' Matt Moore points out, the idea of Bynum leaving the wrong kind of mark isn't entirely out of left field:
There's been a... suspicious trend with Bynum since about 2011. Every team he's been signed to has suffered locker room dysfunction and on-court disaster. You can't reasonably blame Bynum for Hibbert's struggles... but I mean... Lakers... Sixers... Cavaliers... the dude has left more disaster in his wake than Godzilla.
So, add it all up, and you have a recipe for, well, whatever happened to Hibbert.
It's unfortunate that Hibbert's taken the blame for a situation that's been brewing for some time. He's really just the latest and most overt casualty in what's been a slowly but surely unraveling organization. He's become the poster child for dysfunction that's touched just about everyone on the roster.
Other Pacers have had bad games, too.
Even in Wednesday night's winning effort, Stephenson started the game 0-for-9 from the field. George was never able to get much of anything going. The second unit scored just 12 points combined.
In Game 1, George and Stephenson combined to shoot just 8-of-30 from the field.
Suddenly, Hibbert isn't just a guy recovering from a monumental letdown. Now, he looks like Indiana's best hope in its attempt to survive this series against the hungry, young Wizards.
After Game 2, he indicated to the press a none-too-shocking interest in keeping things rolling.
Stringing some games together would be nice. But as Charles Barkley noted during TNT's halftime show, we shouldn't focus exclusively on Hibbert's scoring. The 27-year-old's biggest contributions may need to come on the defensive end, where he's the Pacers' best weapon against Washington's one-two post punch of Nene Hilario and Marcin Gortat.
Indiana also needs Hibbert's rebounds. Even with his nine rebounds in Game 2, the Pacers were out-rebounded 43-38. They were out-rebounded in Game 1 by an astounding 53-36 margin.
That's unacceptable for any team, much less one that's come to be defined by a defensive identity. The Pacers are supposed to be imposing. They're supposed to slow most games to a half-court pace.
They're not supposed to get dominated on the glass.
More than any other contribution, then, Hibbert's effort will reign supreme. Chances are he won't go for 28 again in the series—or for the rest of the postseason. He may not even break 20 again. That doesn't mean he's failing.
Some things would be worse than an unproductive Hibbert. He can't force things. Much to his credit, he waited for the game to come to him on Wednesday, taking opportunities as they came rather than trying to force anything.
Pacers were patient with Hibbert. And he's been patient with his offense.— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) May 8, 2014
That patience is a virtue, both in terms of Hibbert's game and Indiana's reaction thereto. While he needs to show up, he can't panic. Neither can the Pacers.
They're still very much alive.