If that requires him to interrupt an interview with a throng of reporters to make sure that his locker room neighbor D.J. Augustin can get dressed, to cover for Paul George to block New York star Carmelo Anthony’s dunk attempt or even if he has to absorb a knee to the groin from the Miami Heat’s Shane Battier while contesting a layup, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert wants be there for his teammates.
“I always tell guys, if they get beat, don’t foul them, I’ll be there to clean it up,” said Hibbert, the former Georgetown standout. “It’s just that I feel I’m important. I want to be on the court. That’s why they brought me back. That’s why they gave me all this money.”
Last summer Hibbert signed a four-year contract for $58 million, the maximum he could receive under the collective bargaining agreement, but at no time has he appeared more valuable to the Pacers than right now. He has proven to be the difference maker thus far against the defending champion Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, which shift here to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Sunday night’s Game 3 tied at one game apiece.
Hibbert is averaging 24 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in the series after posting just 9.7 points and eight rebounds in three regular season games against Miami. In the Pacers’ 97-93 victory in Game 2 on Friday, Hibbert had 29 points and 10 rebounds and was on the floor when four-time league MVP LeBron James had two turnovers in the final minute.
“I feel like the team needs me to be out there to play, score, rebound, block shots,” Hibbert said. “I need to be out there as much as possible.”
Pacers Coach Frank Vogel was highly criticized for sitting Hibbert for the final two defensive possessions in overtime of Game 1, as James took advantage of his absence to convert two easy layups in the final 10 seconds of Miami’s 103-102 win. Hibbert shook his head from the bench as he watched James blow past George for an uncontested layup as time expired.
“Obviously, hindsight is usually 20-20. But you never know, they may not have run that play if I was in the game,” Hibbert said. “I respect the coach’s decision and I understand the logic behind it. Whatever the coach wanted. If he wanted me on the court, I’d be on the court.”
Hibbert has scored at least 20 points in three of his past six playoff games after reaching 20 just 11 times in the regular season. He is making amends for a mystifying start to the regular season in which he occasionally vanished, failing to score in double figures in 26 of the 53 games before the all-star break, including a scoreless outing in Atlanta.
The ever-conscientious Hibbert consistently sought out feedback from his teammates, believing they had lost some trust in him. But Hibbert disputes the notion that the weight of his deal had caused him to press.
“I signed a max contract, but I never said to myself, ‘I have to force things because I got a max contract,’ or anything like that. I just felt I have to do my job every day and be aggressive and make sure I’m the heart and soul of the defense and just go from there,” said Hibbert, who finished the regular season fourth in the league with a career-high 2.61 blocks per game.
Hibbert said his problems were rooted in a right wrist injury that he originally suffered in a collision with James during the Pacers’ loss to Miami in last postseason’s conference semifinals. He aggravated the injury at some point during the season, though he isn’t sure when.
“I didn’t realize I had a problem until I started lifting in the weight room and it felt really weak and our specialist was like, ‘Wow, this is really bad.’ It affected my touch and everything, my feel for the game,” Hibbert said. “I just relied on my defense and luckily I turned some things around once I got it fixed.”
While Hibbert struggled, his teammates carried on, with George emerging as an all-star and veteran David West serving as a stabilizing force in the locker room and on the court.
“The team moved on and now I’m catching back up,” Hibbert said. “I feel like I’m back to form now.”
He is also confident in the Pacers’ chances to upset the Heat.
“We feel like we’re built for them,” he said. “We may not have three or four superstars, but I feel like we have a team full of guys who have the same mentality of playing smart, playing together and having one focus.”
Hibbert earned his spot among Georgetown’s lineage of all-star big men that includes Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo by working diligently to improve each season. Hoyas Coach John Thompson III helped him learn simply how to run properly. Former Pacers president Larry Bird, who drafted Hibbert 17th overall in 2008, hooked him up with Bill Walton to develop his skills. And during the lockout that shortened the 2011-12 season, Hibbert took it upon himself to join Washington Wizards center Nene and San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter at Spurs star Tim Duncan’s house for a few days of intense workouts. For those who saw him in college, or even as a plodding high school player at Georgetown Prep, the success might seem stunning — but not to Hibbert.
“I always wanted to be an all-star. I always wanted to be in the NBA. I never wanted to settle,” Hibbert said. “People could say this, that and the other about how I played, how I moved and things like that, but I had confidence in myself, no matter what anybody else said.”