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Hibbert Laying Down the Law of Verticality

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 5, 2014, 1:50 a.m.

Isaac Newton is recognized as the father of gravity. Albert Einstein gets the nod for relativity. Cosmic expansion? Edwin Hubble is your man.

And now we present Roy Hibbert, the master of verticality.

“I created that,” he said after contributing five blocked shots to the the Pacers' dismantling of New Orleans on Friday.

That might be a bit of stretch, since verticality can no more be created than gravity. Hibbert, however, might deserve credit for refining and popularizing the vertical approach to defending the foul lane, which explains why his blocked shots average has dropped since the start of the season but his impact perhaps has improved.

Hibbert has taken fewer shots than all the starters but one. Saturday, he took just seven. His wing players, Paul George and Lance Stephenson, attack the boards so aggressively that he half-jokingly complains about them stealing rebounds from him. He doesn't get to handle the ball much, so assists come infrequently.

So what's left for him to show off in a box score? Blocked shots, mainly. But his coach has been telling him to back off from trying to get those. It's enough to make a guy feel paranoid, if he were so inclined.

Hibbert had five blocked shots against the Pelicans on Saturday, a throwback to early in the season when he led the league. He had seven blocks in the season-opener, five in the second game, seven in the fourth and eight in the ninth, at which point he was averaging 4.2 blocks per game and was the early-season leader for the Defensive Player of the Year award. A week later, he blocked six more, and maintained the lead.

But then he went 16 games with no more than three blocks, at which time New Orleans' pogo stick of a forward Anthony Davis took over the league, which he held going into Saturday's game by half a block.

Saturday's block party might have been fun, but don't count on seeing it routinely. Vogel has a greater aspiration for Hibbert: staying on the court without getting into foul trouble.

“There's times where the right play to make is to be straight-up and be clean with your hands,” Vogel said following Saturday's game, which raised the Pacers' record to 5-1 following losses. “A block in a lot of those situations is a little bit of a gamble. More than anything, we need him on the court.

“I do believe that concept of earning no-calls is going to lower his block totals, but it helps the team.”

Hibbert has another theory. He believes teams are challenging him less often, which leaves him fewer opportunities to block shots.

“Coach is sticking up for me,” he said. “I appreciate that, but I anticipate my blocks going down because people haven't been attacking the paint as much as they had. Tonight was the first night … I just kept saying to myself if they're just going to keep driving into me I might have a chance to hit them with a straight-up and block it at the end.”

Those straight-ups that Vogel and Hibbert reference are simply him standing still, stretching out his 7-foot-2 frame as long as possible and holding his hands high in the air to distract opponents driving to the basket. If he doesn't bring down his arms on the shooter or move his body sideways, he won't – or shouldn't – be called for a foul, and therefore won't have to sit and watch Ian Mahinmi do his job for him.

He fouled out of just one game last season, down from a high of nine in 2007-08. He's fouled out of two games this season, one of them on Tuesday at Toronto, when he played just 21 minutes in the Pacers' loss.

This verticality concept isn't new, however. Hibbert's first coach with the Pacers, Jim O'Brien, talked about the importance of it, but it wasn't until Vogel took over that it became a major point of emphasis. Hibbert spent part of a summer in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse practice gymnasium with Vogel letting teammates drive into him without fouling them. It all came to fruition in last season's second-round playoff series with New York, when he suffocated the Knicks' interior game. Television analyst Jeff Van Gundy helped make Hibbert nationally renowned for it, dubbing him the “Great Wall of Hibbert” in Game 1 of the series at Madison Square Garden.

Hibbert wants to be voted Defensive Player of the Year, but says he doesn't have a goal of leading the league in blocked shots, which might make the honor easier to obtain. Maybe the league will initiate a new honor for defenders: Most Vertical.

“I have one thing on my mind – to win games,” Hibbert said. “We're moving along and people know I'm a big part of the defense and why we're No. 1 on guarding the paint as well as guarding the (three-point line).”

Hibbert is a factor in the perimeter defense because his presence in the paint allows his teammates to defend more aggressively, knowing that Hibbert is there to help if they get beat off the dribble. So, he qualifies as the major reason they have allowed the fewest points (88.9), the lowest field goal percentage (.413) and lowest three-point field goal percentage (.324) of all NBA teams.

With all that going, Vogel isn't likely to change his defensive philosophy anytime soon. Verticality will remain the law. The big men will be told to stand there, as still and straight as possible, and just try to get in the way.

“We're the best in the league at it,” Vogel said. “We've gone away from a charge-taking team. I like the idea of not fouling and keeping teams off the line, and if you take a charge and don't get it you're on the floor. How are you going to get a rebound when you're on the floor? I like our guys making athletic plays at the rim. I think it's good for the game. What's more exciting than two all-world athletes making an athletic play at the rim in mid-air? That's more exciting than somebody falling to the ground.

“I like that being part of our identity. We're going to stick with it.”

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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