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Hibbert Having the Last Word

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 12, 2013, 1:30 AM

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This was the payoff for Roy Hibbert. This was the reward for all those agonizing, mysterious games early in the season when he seemed to be inventing ways to miss shots, when it seemed his mind had been blown by that $58 million contract.

Twenty four points and 12 rebounds is not a landmark performance under ordinary circumstances, but when it comes in Game 3 of a second-round playoff series, when it comes against New York of all teams, when it comes in a home arena drenched with gold T-shirts, and when it comes from a player noted mostly for his defense … yes, it means more.

“I think this is his best playoff game ever, probably,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said following his team's 82-71 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “He's just oozing with confidence. Everybody wanted to sort of kick him when he was down earlier in the season when he wasn’t playing with confidence and now he’s just playing extremely well on both ends of the court, and that’s what we need.”

Hibbert kicked himself as much as anyone else kicked him during those early months. Nobody in the NBA is more conscientious, nobody more reflective, than the Pacers' 7-foot-2 center who has a knack for making observers scratch their heads – even if it requires bringing a monocle to the postgame press conference, as he did on Saturday.

Remember how it was going for Hibbert early in the season? Remember the two-point game at San Antonio in November, and the scoreless game at Atlanta in December? Remember how he had 26 games before the All-Star break in which he failed to score in double figures? Remember how he had one of the league's worst shooting percentages within five feet of the basket?

The playoffs are the equalizer, a time when a player can erase half a season's worth of frustration with one big game, as Hibbert did against the Knicks, but he had begun turning things around offensively after the All-Star break. He had just five games without scoring in double figures after that, and put together a string of games in which he scored 25, 22, 26, 20, 16 and 28 points as March turned to April.

He had never had a playoff game such as this, however, and he had it against last season's Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler. He scored all kinds of ways. Of his nine field goals, three were jump-hooks with his left hand, two were jump-hooks with the right hand, and four were simple tips or put-backs. The last one, a rebound of D.J. Augustin's missed three-pointer, opened a 72-57 lead and completed a 7-0 run that forced a Knicks timeout with 6:41 left.

Hibbert took his redemptive moment in stride, and managed to work in some self-criticism for failing to block a shot, after blocking nine in the first two games of the series. Clearly, his focus remains on the defensive end. He feels obligated, having followed the likes of Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, and Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown.

“I can get dunked on three times in a row and it's not going to phase me,” he said. “This is what I am. I'm a rim protector. I'm a Georgetown Hoya. You know the lineage right there.”

It turned out that much of Hibbert's early offensive issues related to his sore right wrist, which he had injured in last season's playoff series with Miami and reinjured this season. It still doesn't seem quite right. It was taped for recent practices, and he seems to favor it at times. He relied more heavily than usual on his left hand in Saturday's game, but that was part of the plan.

“We talked about that,” David West said. “The last game they were forcing him to the baseline and got a few turnovers that way. We told him, when you turn that way you've got to throw that hook. He can go either way. You just can't hesitate about it.”

West and other teammates have tended to Hibbert's tender psyche as well this season. Eventually, it got to the point they had to tell Hibbert to stop apologizing for himself.

“It was too much,” West said. “Nobody's going to play perfect every night. He was still having an impact on the game defensively. He was just putting too much pressure on himself offensively.”

Hibbert's early offensive woes seemed to improve his defense, as he sought to make up for his lack of scoring. And, the fact Hibbert overcame them has ultimately improved his status in the locker room. All in all, it's been a good tradeoff in the long term.

“He's got some humility about him that allows him to say, 'I'm not playing well,'” West said. “There were many nights earlier in the year when he knew he hadn't played well and he'd man up and fess up to it. We know what he's capable of. A guy like that can get himself out of these situations because he's a worker.

“When people were getting down on him and he was having some tough games here and there, and we were losing some games and everybody was putting the sole blame on him, I thought he handled it the best way possible. He stayed persistent in his work, trusted his preparation and eventually turned the corner. He was just mature about it. He wasn't in denial about his play. He wasn't blaming the offense and how plays were being run, he took it square in the chest.”

Hibbert's teammates said they knew he would come around. It's easy to say now, of course, but whether it's true or not, Hibbert has clearly cleared his name in and out of the locker room – both as a player and a competitor – by continuing to work without making excuses.

“That's the reason he got the money, that he was an All-Star, because he works,” George said. “He puts the time into it. I think this is the Roy we'll have all postseason.”

It's the Roy they'll need.

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