The question here is not whether Roy Hibbert can have the occasional big game, although the size of his performance in this one was disproportionate by his standards.
The question is whether he can do it again. And again.
Hibbert had his most important performance of the season Wednesday night, scoring 28 points, making 10-of-13 shots, pulling nine rebounds and blocking two shots as the Pacers beat the Wizards 86-82 to send their second-round series to Washington tied. He was one shy of matching his postseason career high of 29 set in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami last year.
But the guy who was so memorable in that series has been MIA, going scoreless in three of his previous four playoff games, unable to breach 20 since March, and had become a 7-foot-2 conundrum.
“I felt that I put a lot of pressure on myself to get going and I don’t want to get into excuses,” Hibbert said. “I think I was making a lot of excuses throughout the second half of the season and the playoffs, so I decided to take it into my own hands and change it around.”
Several factors played into Hibbert’s eruption, but here’s a popular one that had nothing to do with it: the official announcement of the end of the Andrew Bynum era earlier in the day. Bynum hadn’t even practiced in nearly two months, his balky knees beyond repair, and hadn’t been with the Pacers since Game 5 of the first-round series against Atlanta. Bynum’s absence had as much to do with Hibbert’s breakout as David Harrison’s presence in the stands, which is to say nothing.
What, then, were the real reasons?
>> After Hibbert’s double-zero performance in Game 1, David West pulled him aside in the locker room and sent him a stark but clear message.
“David talked to me about being the person that rescues yourself when you’re in the middle of the ocean,” Hibbert said. “There’s nobody that can throw a life raft or a rope out to you so I had to do it myself.”
>> Hibbert also had a long meeting with coach Frank Vogel after the game, and the two agreed the best way to get the All-Star center going was not as much in the play-calling – he did not have a post-up in the opener – as Hibbert’s activity and aggression.
“When they try to get the ball into me sometimes, it takes a lot of time out of the shot clock to get it,” Hibbert said. “Coach and myself talked at great length after the last game, was in his office for like an hour. We chit-chatted and I told him I don’t really need plays called for me, I’ll defend on one end, rebound, block shots and then I’ll try to be the first big down the court before the defense settles to be able to make a move.
“I’ll let the other guys get most of the plays called but I’m fine just trying to adjust to that more as opposed to wanting a play called for myself. I’ve just got to make things happen on my own and my teammates hit me where I needed to be hit.”
>> Paul George hit him where he needed it most, in the head, on Tuesday, inviting Hibbert out on his boat for an afternoon of fishing and, most importantly, no basketball talk, a session that seemed to clear his troubled mind.
“I seriously believe the biggest person that helped me out (Wednesday night) was Paul,” Hibbert said. “(Tuesday) after practice he invited me on his boat and we fished for 2 hours and just relaxed, no basketball, just talked about life and tried to catch some bass. He got my mind off things, and hopefully this is something I can build on.”
In November, when all was right with the Pacers’ world, Hibbert led the team in scoring and rebounding three times. He’d done it just once more until Wednesday night. The production was central to the outcome, as the team’s three most consistent scorers – George, Lance Stephenson and West – combined to shoot 11-for-33.
“This last day-and-a-half has been tough on him,” said West. “We’ve just been trying to encourage him and keep him uplifted. I just thought he played his game and sort of let all the outside noise go away. He was under control. He was calm. I just thought he got great position early. He was under control and took his time when he got the ball. He got the shots that he wanted.”
For this to be a truly meaningful game, however, Hibbert cannot revert, as he has done so many times in recent months. After scoring 20 against the Knicks on March 19, he totaled 19 and shot 5-for-20 in the next three. After scoring 21 against Miami on March 26, he went 5-for-17 in the next two. After he was last pronounced back, with a humble 13 points in Game 7 of the first round, he followed up with goose eggs.
No one is asking, or even suggesting, he needs to replicate his Game 2 numbers for the Pacers to advance. What Hibbert must do is replicate his effort, his aggression, his confidence.
“I don’t expect to put out 28-point games,” he said. “I want to be solid, contribute, be part of something on both ends. I don’t need to score to come away from the game feeling like I played well.
“I just want to string some good games together. Consistency hasn’t been my biggest friend this year. I’m going to try to continue to play aggressive. I’m just going to control the things I can control. I can’t control play calls, I can control how hard I play, how fast I run down the court, how I play defense and just try to be a team player.”
That’s all anyone, in fact everyone, has been asking.