Even while the growth of advanced stats continues to undermine our bitterest biases—mostly for the better—the specter of sample size carries on, tempting us to tell ourselves the tales we most want to hear.
Hibbert has been embroiled for months in an epic crisis of confidence, but his encouraging performances in Games 2 and 3 of his team’s semifinal showdown with the Washington Wizards—both Pacer wins—have everyone, in Indy and beyond, wondering whether this basketball resurrection is one of flesh and blood, or mere fleeting spirit.
Pacers fans are, of course, banking on the former. Without an engaged, energized Hibbert, Indiana’s offense is simply far too labored to make the Pacers anything more than certain conference-finals fodder.
Even with Hibbert back patrolling the paint with plodding aplomb, the Pacers’s last two wins—both brutal, skull-splitting sieges in which neither team managed to crest 90 points—speak as much to Washington’s glaring inexperience as they do Indiana’s seasoned defense.
Right now, that’ll suit George Hill and his hardwood comrades just fine.
"I think our success has always been ugly," Hill told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. "The last three years I have been here, no one wanted to watch us. We didn't have that glow or that flair where high caliber people tune into watch us. I think that's why we had that chip on our shoulder. No one expected us to be where we're at. It's good that no one wants to watch us."
Particularly for Hibbert, who hadn’t exactly fared well beneath the blazing eyeballs of media and fans, exacting as both have been during his much-publicized collapse—a backslide to which the Pacers themselves succumbed for months.
But just when it seemed certain its goose was cooked, Indy hunkered down and dished out some vintage Pacers punishment, surviving a first-round scare from the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks thanks in large part to Hibbert’s solid—if wholly unspectacular—Game 7 performance.
Then, as if by cruel clockwork, a quick regression, with Hibbert logging 18 scoreless, board-less minutes in Indy’s 102-96 Game 1 loss.
The reaction was as swift as it was star-studded.
Me and Roy Hibbert had the same amount of points and rebounds tonight.— Tracy McGrady (@Real_T_Mac) May 6, 2014
Even Hibbert’s teammates, it seems, had had enough. Exhibit A: This report by Pacers.com’s Scott Agness describing a postgame “meeting” between Hibbert and teammate David West in which West was “as heated as he’s ever been.”
David West, Roy Hibbert and Rasual Butler appeared to have a talk in the weight room. Doors were shut. Guys declined to talk about it.— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 6, 2014
It’s easy to assume Hibbert’s subsequent outings—a combined 42 points and 14 rebounds in Games 2 and 3—as pure coincidence.
Until you picture a sufficiently enraged West—a dude so tough he could get his broken dishwasher to grill him a steak, given enough venom—and realize the message may have just gotten through.
Lest we chalk his pair of performances up to a tangible turnaround, even Hibbert was somewhat circumspect in his most recent postgame remarks.
"I'm just trying to get back to the things that helped me out when I was playing well," Hibbert told Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star immediately following Game 3. "I'm not saying this is a turning point, but this is the first step towards staying consistent."
For their part, Pacers fans are hoping that the media’s quickly shifting perception, exemplified by the Star’s Bob Kravitz, becomes a matter of redemptive permanence:
Hibbert helped himself, and his team, by producing the kind of effort we saw with great frequency during last year's post-season run. Time after time, he was the first big man down the floor. Time after time, he established low-post position, made himself a prime target. Time after time, he fought for rebounds, which not only resulted in boards but produced fouls on Washington's big men.
It’s hard to believe the Pacers entered Game 2 with the express intent of getting their All-Star center involved offensively; his performance had atrophied far too long for Indy to hinge its fortunes to Hibbert’s shoulders solely.
And yet, with every reactive rebound and low-post dump-down, Hibbert rewarded his teammates’ confidence. Little by little, long-gaited lope by long-gaited lope, the form Hibbert had claimed as his own—peerlessly tall, but with a skill set that belied his vertical bulk—slowly started coming back into focus.
More importantly, Hibbert was back beasting where it mattered most: in the defensive paint, fast and fleet where for so long there was only forlorn, flaccid, defeated.
If West's invectives scared Hibbert straight, the words and wisdom of John Thompson III—Hibbert's coach at Georgetown University, who was in attendance for Game 2—landed with the gentle strength that only a mentor could wield.
"I wanted to get there to give Roy some support," Thompson told Comcast SportsNet. "I think the main thing was just letting him know that we're here for him. He has been struggling, he’s been beat up, he's not playing well. I think the main thing, I just wanted to sit down in my own way and remind Roy that he's still Roy and make sure he remembered who he was. I think he kind of got the message."
Is Hibbert's resurrection for real? The spirit is certainly there. The body of work? That needs a few more games of fleshing out.
With the Miami Heat appearing poised for more fast-earned rest ahead of the next round, it’s doubtful any East team has either the method or the mettle to match baskets with the defending champs.
For these Pacers, however—and for Hibbert especially—getting back to conference-finals form must be a process cast in the image of their last two showings: plodding, perhaps, but with a palpable purpose such that not even the Heat can mistake which direction the footstep’s echoes are headed.