Hibbert was engaged, active and productive Wednesday night, leading the Pacers to an 86-82 victory in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Hibbert looked nothing like the confused guy who had a zero-point, zero-rebound performance in the Pacers’ Game 1 loss. On Wednesday, he scored the Pacers’ first five points and finished with a game-high 28 while making 10 of 13 field goal attempts. He also contributed nine rebounds and two blocked shots. His bounce-back effort exceeded the Pacers’ wildest hopes — and was exactly what they needed.
Coach Frank Vogel and Pacers players quickly realized that the Wizards are much better than they were during the regular season. The Pacers needed Hibbert to get into the fight, they said, because they’re definitely in one.
Clearly, Hibbert heard them.
The Pacers also did their part to help reignite Hibbert. Often, Hibbert has been an afterthought in the Pacers’ offense. In Game 2, he was the focal point.
Indiana went to Hibbert early and often. They gave him all the time he needed to work in the low post against Nene and Marcin Gortat. The Wizards chose to play Hibbert straight. After all, why double team someone who hasn’t scored in three of the past four games?
Coach Randy Wittman was content to let Nene and Gortat use their muscle against Hibbert. As long as they stopped Hibbert from getting to his favorite spot about four feet from the basket, Wittman figured the Wizards would be fine. That sound strategy worked in the past against Hibbert. The execution wasn’t so good in Game 2.
Wittman waited for Nene and Gortat to make things difficult for Hibbert, but “we didn’t do the job that we have of not letting him catch the ball where he wants and [getting] him off his spot,” Wittman observed. “They took advantage of it, no question about it. That was big for them.”
Of course it was, Vogel said. “Obviously, Roy was a different player tonight,” the coach said. “He made a decision, clearly, that he was going to step up.”
To hear the Pacers tell it, Hibbert had no choice. They figured Hibbert would struggle in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, whose big men shoot three-pointers and are way too quick for the lumbering former Georgetown standout. The Hawks were simply a bad matchup for the big fella. His teammates were cool with that.
They weren’t pleased, though, about Hibbert’s Game 1 disappearing act against the Wizards, who play a conventional style. Sure, Nene and Gortat possess the skills to shoot jumpers. But they’re also back-to-the-basket players.
Hibbert’s no-show in the first game was simply unacceptable, team leader David West told him.
“He was very calm and very subdued throughout the day [Wednesday],” West said of Hibbert. “This last day and a half has been tough on him. We’ve just been trying to encourage him and keep him uplifted. He played his game. He sort of let all the outside noise go away.”
After Game 1, Hibbert had a long conversation with West. He patted Hibbert on the back, and also used his foot for encouragement. The tough love worked.
“[West] talked about being the person who rescues yourself when you’re in the middle of the ocean,” said Hibbert, who was pleased that Georgetown Coach John Thompson III and his agent, David Falk, attended Wednesday’s game to support him.
“Nobody is going to throw a life raft or a rope out to help you. I’ve got to do it myself.”
Just like with the team’s late-season slide (the Pacers are 17-17 since March 1), his ineffectiveness has been somewhat of a mystery. After a loss to the Wizards on March 28, Hibbert called out some of his teammates for being selfish. Although he didn’t name names, the criticism created more problems in the Pacers’ locker room.
In addition, rumors of off-the-court problems have swirled around the team for months. On Tuesday’s off day, all-star forward Paul George took to the Internet to address the rumors — sort of, anyway.
George posted a picture of himself, Hibbert and point guard George Hill on a fishing getaway (Hibbert likes to fish). George wrote that the players are brothers and all the rumors need to stop.
Hibbert appreciated the gesture.
“We fished for about two hours,” Hibbert said. “Just relaxed and didn’t talk basketball. We just talked about life and tried to catch some bass.”
At least for one night, life was better for Hibbert after he got his head back in the game. The Pacers will need him to keep it there.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.