After scoring 28 points, grabbing nine rebounds and generally looking like the player who anchored a stingy Indiana Pacers defense for the past three seasons, Roy Hibbert appeared to be his old self. Ever since the start of this series against Washington, he's been altering or blocking shots at the rim, finishing at a higher rate in the restricted area and being more active in his movements on the floor.
Now the question is whether this is a smokescreen. His performance thus far in the second round of the playoffs has been consistent: The points will come and go, since he's not a terribly effective offensive player, but the rim protection has been unrelenting.
I just haven't been as aggressive as I should've been in the past, and you have to look within yourself to make things happen. David [West] always talks to me about being the person that rescues yourself when you're in the middle of the ocean, so there's nobody that can throw a life raft or a rope out to help you. So I've gotta do it myself.
Part of what has made Hibbert a great player in the past is his understanding of his weaknesses. Due to his huge frame, he has very slow feet. To adjust, he generally hovers in the paint under all circumstances: pick-and-rolls, isolation drives by an opposing guard or even when his own man floats out to the perimeter.
Because the most effective offensive basketball relies on penetration to the basket, it would only be a matter of time before offensive players tried to challenge him in his domain. More often than not, they would fail. And despite the consistent pressure to defend the rim, he was unbelievably effective at not committing fouls.
All of that disappeared as the Pacers fell apart at the seams over these last few months. Hibbert found himself venturing out of his comfort zone more than the Pacers would have liked and got burned for it quite often.
That's why, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Hibbert's 0.793 points per possession against when defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers ranked him smack in the middle of the league at the 50th percentile—literally average. What this statistic really measured was opposing ball-handlers' effectiveness in blowing by him to the rim.
Part of the Pacers' scheme is to allow opponents to shoot mid-range jump shots. On pick-and-rolls, Hibbert stays around the rim and lets the ball-handler dance in the 13-20 foot range. If he wants to shoot, go for it.
Hibbert has done a much better job staying at home in this current Washington series, and John Wall and Bradley Beal have taken the bait.
Here's Beal on a pick-and-roll from Game 4, with Drew Gooden getting a solid piece of Paul George (focus on the second pick-and-roll action of the play).
Hibbert remains patient and allows Beal to attack him. Because he has his head down and is rumbling downhill, any type of off-the-dribble pull-up will be extremely difficult. Still, Beal goes for it and throws up a 15-foot floater. Once Hibbert sees him ready to shoot, he extends a single, long arm to contest. Beal misses.
On this next pick-and-roll involving the same set of players, Beal decides to attack with his right hand. George does a good job fighting through the pick to remain in a somewhat advantageous defensive position but is still clearly beaten.
Hibbert abandons Gooden, who has popped to the top of the key. Because he is already low, he only has to take a few steps over to Beal. What appeared to be an easy layup is no longer the case, and Beal is forced to float the ball over Hibbert's outstretched arm.
Even though Hibbert doesn't get a piece of it, he severely alters the shot type to make it a significantly lower-percentage field-goal attempt. Once again, it's no good.
Now compare this to earlier in the season, when the Pacers were playing the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kendrick Perkins knocks off Durant's defender, Lance Stephenson, with a pretty solid screen. This leaves Durant essentially one-on-one with Hibbert, an obviously bad matchup.
This is a situation when the Pacers' philosophy becomes a pick-your-poison situation: Do you want Durant driving all the way to the rack or pulling up from the elbow? Both are high-percentage shots for him, but anything at the rim is both an easier shot and has the added benefit of drawing a foul.
This is why the Pacers preach basket protection and willingly give up that shot. Hibbert is supposed to stay back and live with whatever happens with the elbow jumper.
Instead, Hibbert is all the way out at the second hash mark of the paint. By extending his defensive area, he's also now backpedaling. For a slow-footed big man, this is the worst possible situation.
Durant hits him with a double crossover, thereby getting Hibbert to both cross his feet and open up his hips. Durant leaves him in the dust.
On the offensive end, Hibbert is certainly producing more than he has since the All-Star break. Though it's nice that his hook shots and other post moves are somewhat effective, this is not where he can truly impact the game.
For the Indiana offense to succeed, the Pacers don't need Hibbert dominating from the block. They need him setting screens, rolling to the rim and finishing. But even more than that: offensive rebounding.
Indiana typically shoots a poor percentage from the field due to a lack of offensive playmaking leading to difficult shot attempts. The only way to combat this talent deficiency is to simply create more possessions.
Last season, the Pacers grabbed the offensive board on 30.3 percent of missed shots in the regular season, which ranked them fourth in the league (according to NBA.com). This year, that number has plummeted dramatically to 24.9 percent—21st in the NBA.
Hibbert is more than capable of snagging rebounds on his own, but his limited athleticism diminishes that capacity somewhat. In particular, his inability to jump multiple times for the basketball hurts him. Where he's most effective is before the shot goes up: being physical, establishing position and giving himself the best opportunity to be where the ball will land.
It's plays like the one below that make the difference, when he muscles Marcin Gortat under the rim to put himself in prime position for the board.
Just a subtle moment of physicality is enough to make the difference between an empty possession and two points.
With the Wizards down 3-1, the Pacers seem to be sitting pretty. They'll have a chance to close the series out at home and get rested before likely facing Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row.
Especially against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Indiana will need Hibbert. We've seen him shut them down at the rim in the past, and there's no way Indiana can win without him.
Quite simply, he'll be the focal point of the series, as B/R's Jim Cavan describes:
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.
But for now, it'll take one more game of his increased physicality and smarts against Washington for that eventual matchup to happen. Given what we've seen over a couple of games now, don't be surprised if this improved Hibbert sticks around.