At various points throughout the 2013-14 NBA season, it was all too easy to watch the floundering Indiana Pacers and land on a singularly pressing question: How does a 7’2’ center of Roy Hibbert’s caliber—sturdy, skilled and smart—lose his confidence?
Two All-Star Game appearances in six seasons; a perennial candidate for Defensive Player of the Year; a frontcourt fluidity belying the lumbering look—these are not the hallmarks of a career implosion, least of all at the prime-straddled age of 27.
But if we’ve learned anything from this postseason, it’s that, for Hibbert, the matchup can make or break the man.
Propelled by an impressive showing in Indy’s 3-1 lead over the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Hibbert’s confidence is easily at a three-month high—hell in waiting, if you’re the Miami Heat.
It was in last year’s conference finals, the Pacers’ official coming-out party, that Hibbert’s star struck its apex: 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting.
More than any other factor—more than Paul George’s steady superstar rise, more than Lance Stephenson’s experiment with consistency, more than a bit of extra bench depth—Hibbert’s beastly play, even in defeat, portended a surefire Pacers return.
The reasons couldn’t be more obvious. In Hibbert, Frank Vogel boasted the quintessential antidote to Miami’s makeup: a prime paint protector capable of both rerouting the rim-ward forays of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade while punishing the Heat’s slender frontcourt at the other end.
Through Indy’s first 40 games this season, Hibbert’s production had remained largely on career par: 12.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and, most important of all, a league-best 33-7 record for the Pacers.
|10/29 - 1/31||12.2||7.8||.463||92.8|
|2/1 - 4/16||9.5||5.2||.412||99.9|
|4/19 - 5/5 (playoffs)||4.6||3.3||.356||99.2|
|ECS Games 2-4||19.7||7.7||.647||83.4|
Then, slowly but surely—painfully, Pacers fans would say—the former Georgetown University standout started losing his edge. The rotations were a step slow, the baby hooks started sailing wide and post players he surpassed in size six months out of utero were suddenly rooting Hibbert out of the paint.
As simple basketball slumps gave way to sordid locker-room speculation, Indiana began to follow its All-Star center’s discouraging suit. Even while George and Stephenson struggled to weather their own regressions, Hibbert began to be seen as patient zero for the Pacers’ paralyzing plague.
Writing at USA Today back on April 25, longtime Indianapolis Star beat reporter Bob Kravitz went so far as to lobby for head coach Frank Vogel to bench his burly big, ensconced as he was in a nightmarish matchup with the space-savvy Atlanta Hawks:
It's really very simple and kind of sad given the deep reservoir of goodwill the big man has built up in Indianapolis: Hibbert is killing the Pacers right now. He can't catch a pass. He can't get a rebound. He can't make a shot, either from mid-range or from right in front of the rim. And if coach Frank Vogel stays with him, if Vogel continues to start him or play him a significant number of minutes, he deserves to go down with the sinking ship.
Things hit a caustic crescendo in Indy’s Game 1 loss to the Wizards, wherein Hibbert failed to record a point or secure a rebound in 18 minutes, marking the third time this postseason he finished with a zero in the rightmost column of the box score.
Afterwards, Hibbert’s teammates took it upon themselves to air some long-festering grievances, per Pacers.com’s Scott Agness:
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
A beyond furious David West, on Hibbert: "He’s got to be part of the fight. H’s got to be part of this thing for us to go anywhere.”— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 6, 2014
The criticism got so heated that even former NBA players—those you’d least expect to levy the lash—were coming out to voice their displeasure:
Me and Roy Hibbert had the same amount of points and rebounds tonight.— Tracy McGrady (@Real_T_Mac) May 6, 2014
That his on-court comrades in particular were so vocal only underscores Hibbert’s importance. Just how big a bellwether has he been? The Pacers are 18-5 in games where Hibbert registers 15 points or more dating back to the regular season.
None of which are near as important as Games 3 and 4 of the Washington series, in which Hibbert—left for dead so many times you wondered whether he’d even get a gravestone—has looked every bit the part of last year’s game-changing Pacers pivot.
All season long, Indy’s success was seen as stemming in spite of, not because of, its offense. With limited weapons and a desert-barren bench, having a center of Hibbert’s versatility becomes crucial—particularly in a playoff environment wherein so many possessions end up necessitating last-second dump-downs.
And just as his woes seemed to dovetail with his team’s fast-fracturing chemistry, Hibbert’s resurgence has succeeded in rallying anew the spirits of a once-proud team.
"Roy knows we got his back, simple as that," Paul George told the Star’s Zak Keefer following the Pacers’ Game 3 win. "He just has (to) continue to be consistent for us. We know (some) nights it's going to be tough. He's not going to score 28-30 points night-in and night-out, but we're always going to need him on the defensive end. The past two games he's been great just defending our basket."
Defending our basket.
Mark these words down now, because the way things look, we’re liable to hear it ‘til our eardrums melt if and when last year’s seven-game conference finals classic is rejoined.
If Indiana’s soap-opera season has taught us anything, it’s that the confidence of an individual player and the chemistry of the team are inextricably linked—that when one boat breaks, the fleet is that much harder to float.
Fitting, then, that the Pacers appear to have offered us a metaphorical flip side: the picture of a ship once believed sunk beginning to raise the tide beneath the team.