INDIANAPOLIS – These diminutive Atlanta Hawks had unraveled Roy Hibbert and slumped his shoulders over and over, and finally the biggest and once the baddest man swatted one of their shots so powerfully that his upper body lunged toward his knees. His head leveled up, and he smiled widely. They desperately wanted it, a golden crowd serenading him with cheers and a lower bowl of fans extending high-fives out to him.
Most of all, Hibbert mightily needed to exhibit a pulse in this first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. He had set a bar for himself in last year’s postseason, had become a two-time NBA All-Star, but his tailspin to this season encapsulated the lackluster of the Indiana Pacers.
His lethargy had carried into late April, and Hibbert had listened to boos cascade from all sectors inside the Fieldhouse in Games 1, 2 and 5. As passionate as these fans are for a winner, they’ll turn on you just as swift. Finally, Hibbert gave them reason to cheer again on Saturday night with a resurgent performance of 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in the Pacers’ 92-80 win in Game 7.
The fans had cheered him off the court and hailed his defensive activity, and later, Hibbert slowly started to apply ice bags on his knees in the locker room. Support came from every angle of the arena last spring, and seven games into this postseason the fans erupted for Hibbert as if to say: Welcome to the playoffs, Roy.
Finally, Hibbert merited acclaim in the Fieldhouse again, and all the 7-foot-2 center could do was shrug and accept it as much as those calls to take away his starting job.
“I couldn’t care less,” Hibbert told RealGM. “As long as my teammates support me, and we believe in each other …”
His voice tailed off, perhaps because harping on the unity of the locker room was so simple last season. Everything’s changed now, though: the spotlight, the expectations and the personalities. It is hard to justify the same clichés, when clearly the belief in each other has been tested and has waned sometimes.
Ultimately, the Pacers escaped the Hawks and learned lessons from their indecent approach in this first series. Paul George has assumed his end of the burden and, for all the detractors of his frenzied style, Lance Stephenson’s boundless energy uplifted every one of these Pacers. He taunted his own shots, galloped on his sleek passes – and skied for 14 rebounds at 6-foot-5.
When the Pacers function their finest, there are no blips in the starting five. Everyone does their part, fulfills their strengths, and that’s how they pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the conference finals. For them, the slippage of Hibbert stood out and impacted everyone. Options on offense dwindled, a four-on-five attack at times, and his size aided in the Hawks’ floor spacing.
Among personnel around the NBA, many wondered: How can Hibbert go from averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds against the reigning champions to minuscule production against a similarly small frontcourt? Had his offseason weight training broken down his body?
Kyle Korver had blocked Hibbert twice on layup attempts – in the same game, an event that left even Korver smiling. He was never a leaper and agile like Dwight Howard, but this was something else. Hibbert labored up and down the court throughout stretches of the season’s second half. In the past, he always had enough.
When asked about whether his summer of bulking had allowed his body to give out, Hibbert told RealGM: “Nah, it’s just 82 games and you have ups and downs. We have such a talented team, sometimes people get lost in the offensive shuffle. Miami has a small lineup … so everything’s different. Every series is different. It worked for me [Saturday]. It’s not always going to be like that, so it is what it is.”
Hibbert’s too talented, too proven to give into the notion the offense is stable when the basketball comes and goes for him. Six of seven playoff games with single-digit scoring outputs – after only four in 19 games in 2013 – is unacceptable.
From David West on down, they all stayed in his ear with encouragement. No, Hibbert doesn’t need to demand the ball, but the Pacers’ offense has another gear when he takes initiative, when his field-goal attempts carry over to the defensive end.
“When Roy’s locked in offensively, his defense is off the carts,” George said. “That’s when he becomes special.”
Within the Pacers’ locker room, the attention shifted to the Washington Wizards, a second-round date with a dynamic backcourt and a rugged frontcourt. Nene and Marcin Gortat imprinted their presence all over the series against the Chicago Bulls, and Luis Scola, an ex-teammate of Gortat, knew this: an absent Hibbert won’t fly in another seven-game series. “We need Roy like we need him every game, but especially now,” Scola said.
The boos flipped into cheers for Roy Hibbert, and his motor was evident everywhere on Saturday night. He had muffed passes, yes, but Hibbert had clapped on the sideline, gathered teammates for huddles on the court and punctuated a defensive revival. This resembled the Hibbert of last season, and these were the Pacers of last season, suffocating Atlanta to 30 percent shooting from the field.
"I couldn’t care less about the boos or cheers," he said, but maybe this was the night when the reversal changes his disposition. These courtside fans had extended their hands to a trotting Hibbert after his wringing swat to send the Hawks home, and everyone had recognized his rejuvenation. Welcome back, Roy Hibbert.