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HIbbert is at Center of it All

by Mark Montieth |

January 31, 2013, 12:10 AM

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Roy Hibbert stands at the core of the Pacers' fate this season. More specifically, Roy Hibbert's offense. Most specifically, Roy Hibbert's ability to provide a scoring threat within whispering distance of the basket.

Hibbert was all that the Pacers have ever asked him to be in Wednesday's 98-79 victory over Detroit at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and all that they will ever need him to be. He hit half of his 14 field goal attempts and scored a team-high 18 points in 26 minutes. He was assertive, going to the rim rather than settling for awkward hooks and flips farther from the basket. There will still be possessions like the one in the third quarter when he missed an attempted dunk in traffic and two follow-up tips, but the concept was perfect. He didn't outplay his matchup, Greg Monroe, who also scored 18 points, but he didn't create a deficit at his position, either.

Related: Game Rewind - Pacers 98, Pistons 79 »

By now we know what the rest of the Pacers will offer. Their leading scorer, Paul George, is an All-Star at 22 with nowhere to go but up. David West is as consistent and inevitable as Father Time. George Hill holds his own at point guard, rarely getting outplayed. Lance Stephenson, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Pistons, will go back to the bench when Danny Granger returns, but has proven himself a capable starter.

What's left is Hibbert, the man of mystery in the middle of it all. Wednesday's game was the fourth time he's led the team in scoring this season. Last season after 46 games, when the Pacers also were 27-19 in the lockout-shortened season, he had led the scoring 10 times. He's averaging 10 points on 42 percent shooting. Last season he averaged 12.8 points on 50 percent shooting. The Pacers will take that again, and probably need that the rest of the way. The $58 million contract Hibbert signed over the summer wasn't intended as a demand that he play significantly better. It was a reward for what he had already done – an All-Star last season – and an acknowledgment of the necessity of having a capable center if noise is to be made in the postseason. If he's enough of a threat to absorb the interest of the defense, he makes life easier for teammates on the perimeter and lessens the reliance on three-point shooting.

“It keeps (opponents) honest,” George said. “He's going to come around. I think it's just a matter of time. It gives us another dimension and another option when he comes back around.”

Nobody has ever questioned Hibbert's sincerity or dedication. The contract did not make him take anything for granted, it heightened his sense of responsibility. That brought about a slow start, which only made things worse. Only recently does it seem he has begun to regain his confidence. All four of the games in which he led the team in scoring have come since Dec. 21.

George knows a bit of what Hibbert has felt. He declared his intent to make the All-Star team the day before training camp began, and when Granger turned up absent at the start of the season he put more pressure on himself. It took awhile for for him to play at his current level, his scoreless outing at Golden State on Dec. being the slap in the face that got him going.

“Anytime you sign a big deal, not only are the fans going to expect a lot of you, you're going to expect you have to put up big performances,” George said of Hibbert. “I think that's the pressure he put on himself. The same pressure I put on myself at the beginning of the year. Now I'm just playing and letting it come to me.

“We stay in his ear constantly. We just tell him to continue to do what you did to get that big contract. It's going to come around.”

Hibbert doesn't have to score 18 points every night, but 50 percent shooting the rest of the season would be most welcome. That starts with the shots he calls “chippies.” And because no statistic can go unturned in this era of technology and neurotic analysis, we know that Hibbert has hit just 47 percent of of his shots within the restricted area of the foul lane, identified by the arc in front of the basket – a.k.a. Chippieville. For comparison's sake, Tyson Chandler has hit 71 percent of his shots in that range, Dwight Howard 66 percent and Monroe 58 percent. Hibbert also has hit just 35 percent of his shots within the foul lane.

That's why Wednesday's performance came as a relief – to the Pacers, starting with him.

“Obviously I’d like to get back on track,” Hibbert said afterward. “I’m trying to work on finishing the buckets in the paint. I miss a lot of those. My teammates were looking for me and I’m happy. It’s one game. I’m just trying to strive for consistency and try to string some good games together.

“I’m just concentrating and taking my time instead of rushing it because I tend to rush a lot sometimes. Just want to concentrate and finish those.”

The Pacers' preseason goal of winning at least half of their road games is looking lost. They're 10-16 after losing three-of-four on the trip just completed, and would have to go 11-14 the rest of the way to achieve it. They do have the most favorable stretch of the season in front of them, however. Wednesday's game began a stretch in which 10 of the next 13 will be played at home. It's the perfect opportunity for Hibbert to regain the level of play and confidence that made him an All-Star last season.

Ultimately, however, the Pacers will be measured more by how they fare in road games against winning teams than in home games against losing teams – particularly teams that traded two players a couple of hours before the game, including a starter, as Detroit did on Wednesday. Beating winning teams on the road is the only way to progress deep into the playoffs, and it remains the Pacers' lone remaining hurdle. They've only won two such games so far – over Chicago and Memphis.

They need to do better. Doing so will start with Hibbert's play in the restricted area, and spread from there.

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