Hibbert playing his straight-up best down the stretch

April 19, 2012-- The scene has been replayed time and again in recent weeks:

Quick perimeter scorer beats his man off the dribble, heads to the rim, runs into a 7-foot-2 vertical wall, misses the shot, falls to the floor and looks around for the officials, in utter disbelief at the absence of a whistle.

The silence is deafening.

And in that one change, that one small step of growth, lies the key to what just might be the best stretch of games in Roy Hibbert's career.

Hibbert has produced five consecutive double-doubles for the first time in his four NBA seasons, which represents an extremely encouraging late-season rally for the All-Star center. He had slumped since the All-Star break, producing just two double-doubles in a 25-game span, but has come back strong.

His surge has been central to the six-game win streak the Pacers take into their game with Milwaukee tonight in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

And it all has started on defense, where Hibbert not only has been blocking shots in bulk but altering them with his straight-up presence.

"We kind of let our defense slip for awhile before this streak," Danny Granger said. "We wanted to put more of a focus on defense and when you've got a 7-2 guy to protect the rim, that's always a nice commodity to have and he's done a great job."

For years, fans watched in frustration when smaller players would drive, Hibbert would rotate over to protect the basket but bring his arms down when contact was made, picking up an automatic foul. Hibbert watched, too, on the game films he pores over regularly in his self-scouting sessions.

It's easy to see, and easy to say, but keeping those long arms in the air while the torso absorbs high-speed impact is much, much tougher than it looks.

"I talk to the refs before the game, I always study tape and I make sure that I'm always straight-up," Hibbert said. "That's my thing. If there's one thing I bring to the game every night it's blocking shots straight-up. I'll take getting a no-call."

In the last five games, Hibbert has averaged 14.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 77.3 percent from the free-throw line. That last number bears a second look because that is the one area he has slipped a bit this season. After shooting 75 percent the previous two seasons, he is at 71 percent this year.

But he made six of six down the stretch to seal the Pacers' 105-99 win in Milwaukee Saturday and converted a three-point play in an 8-0 run that helped produce a 102-97 win in Philadelphia Tuesday.

Listening to Hibbert, though, the offensive numbers are secondary. His focus is elsewhere.

"My mindset is defense, defense, defense," he said. "Coming out, I tell the guys, 'Let me protect the paint, don't foul them, I'll block the shot.' That really helps us out in terms of getting out in transition and keeping the other team to a low shooting percentage."

Though the Pacers have been on an offensive roll, scoring at least 100 points in six straight games and 11 of 12, Coach Frank Vogel's primary emphasis has been shoring up a defense that was among the NBA's best early in the season but suffered slippage until recently.

"We've talked about suffocating defense and that's what we want to go into the playoffs with," he said. "We want to go in with a head of steam, regardless of who we're playing, we don't want to settle for 45 percent field-goal defense. We want under-40-percent field goal defense and we want to do it without fouling. Our starters are really, really just dialed in to defending at a high level and when you do that your offense seems to be easy."

Should the Pacers wind up facing Orlando in the first round, they will lean heavily on Hibbert's inside presence at both ends of the floor -- with or without Dwight Howard's participation.

The way he has been playing lately, he is up to the task. Straight up, in fact.

 

Follow @conrad_brunner on Twitter