Frank Vogel said the Pacers won’t quit on Roy Hibbert.
Which is interesting, because it sure seems as if Hibbert has quit on himself, or worse.
The 7-2 center’s absence of presence continued in the Pacers’ 98-85 loss in Atlanta in Game 3 Thursday night. In 19 minutes, Hibbert managed four points and two rebounds on 2-for-9 shooting.
For the three games of this series, he has produced 18 points and 16 rebounds in 73 minutes, shooting 7-for-25 (.280). But surely he’s dominating at the defensive end, right? Think again.
Hibbert has two fewer blocked shots than Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, which is another way of saying he has zero.
“We’re not going to quit on him, I know that,” Vogel said. “We’re going to keep working with him, keep trying to figure it out.”
After one particularly egregious misplay in the second quarter – Hibbert fumbled a point-blank look out of bounds – the NBA TV cameras caught Pacers President Larry Bird with his face buried in his hands. Even the guy whose notoriously expressionless mug is next to the word “stoic” in the dictionary couldn’t contain himself.
There were many reasons other than Hibbert’s continued poor play that contributed to the Pacers’ loss. Paul George never got untracked after early foul trouble. George Hill shot 1-for-11. The defense was a step slow all night, failing to close out to shooters (the Hawks were 12-of-34 from the arc) and to contain drives to the hoop (Atlanta shot 37 free throws). The offense was typically flat-footed and overly reliant on individual playmaking than collective execution.
But the Pacers’ biggest advantage over the Hawks, indeed against most teams, is supposed to be the presence of a legitimate big man in the middle at both ends of the floor.
Except he hasn’t been, not for awhile now.
Hibbert’s issues with the Hawks aren’t the product of a tough matchup against a team with big men that can stretch the floor and draw him away from the bucket. It’s the extension of a funk that began right around the time he was selected to the All-Star team for the second time and spiraled late in the season.
After the All-Star break, he averaged 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and shot .390. Pretty bad, right?
But it’s only getting worse.
In his last seven games, Hibbert has averaged 3.8 points and shot 19 percent. Those are numbers that would shame Greg Kite.
“We’ve all tried to talk to him and keep him confident,” said David West. “It’s hurting him. He wants to help us and he wants to play well. He’s hard on himself. We’ve got to figure out a way to get him involved. He’s got to figure out a way to get himself involved.”
The biggest signs of life the Pacers have shown in this series have come with Hibbert on the bench and a small lineup on the floor. Whether it’s Ian Mahinmi’s superior athleticism or Luis Scola’s superior offensive instincts, the Pacers have simply been better with somebody else, anybody else.
It might seem obvious to those of us whose careers are not on the line to make the call to bench Hibbert. For Vogel, though, it’s more complicated than that. Sitting the big man might indeed help the Pacers beat the Hawks, but would it further damage what is left of Hibbert’s eggshell psyche, mitigating the team’s ability to put together a deep run?
Asked if he had enough faith in Hibbert to keep him in the starting lineup, Vogel wavered just enough to hint he was considering the possibility.
“We’ll look at everything. I can’t say that right now,” Vogel said. “I have confidence in Roy Hibbert. I do have that. He hasn’t played well in this series to this point but I’ve got great confidence in him.”
What Vogel must remember right now is this: without beating the Hawks, there will be no run.
And it has become increasingly clear that with Hibbert, there is no beating the Hawks.