Hibbert Puts it Together with Big Night

by Manny Randhawa

November 16, 2013

Miroslav Raduljica was overwhelmed on Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ rookie backup center – who had played 17 minutes all season coming into Friday’s contest against the Pacers -- wasn’t supposed to find himself charged with guarding Roy Hibbert, but the task fell to him when starter Zaza Pachulia came out of the game with 5:28 left in the first quarter.

With center Larry Sanders out with an injured thumb – one of four sidelined players for the Bucks – Raduljica played 18 minutes on Friday because, as Milwaukee head coach Larry Drew put it, “With Ekpe [Udoh] in foul trouble and with really having to keep an eye on Zaza's minutes, you’ve got to throw the next big body on Hibbert, and it happened to be Miroslav.”

But the 7’0”, 250-pound Raduljica just couldn’t handle the Pacers’ giant.

“He’s maybe the biggest guy I’ve ever played against,” Raduljica said of Hibbert. “I mean, everything here is new for me. It’s my first season in the NBA and I’ve never met a guy like him, so big and so strong. Especially tonight, with everything going so well for him, I don’t know. It’s pretty tough.”

“Pretty tough” is an understatement given how Hibbert performed Friday night, scoring 24 points, hauling in 10 rebounds, and blocking eight shots. And for Raduljica – playing in just his third career NBA game – Hibbert didn’t exactly roll out a welcome mat with the league’s logo printed on it.

Hibbert was 8-of-10 from the field and overpowering on both ends of the floor, accomplishing something he hadn’t done to date in the 2013-14 campaign: match a stellar defensive showing with an equally impressive offensive display.

“Things were falling for me tonight,” Hibbert said. “I’ve been working with Coach Popeye [Jones] after practice and before games. This was just one of those nights where things worked out. My teammates kept feeding me and I’m appreciative. My first and foremost thing is protecting the basket and cleaning up anything. … I don’t expect nights like this every night.”

Hibbert may not expect nights like that every night, but after his 20-point effort against the Toronto Raptors a week earlier, he admitted that his offseason focus on defense and his early season work on that part of his game led to some below-average offensive performances.

“I feel like I’ve been so focused on defense that I let other guys take the lead on the offensive end because we have so many weapons,” he said on Nov. 8. “ … Sometimes I’m just so worked up from getting blocks or helping out defensively that I tire myself out a little bit and I make stupid decisions.”

Hibbert’s eight blocks on Friday pushed his league-leading total to 43, 15 ahead of the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis. But his defensive dominance has been consistent from the beginning of the season, whereas his offensive efficiency has been spotty.

Coming into Friday’s game, Hibbert had blocked at least five shots in a game five times. He never scored more than eight points in any of those contests. The most recent example came on Monday night, when he had five blocks but just three points on 1-of-4 shooting.

On Friday night, Hibbert put it all together, playing his most complete game of the season. He set season-highs in blocks (no small feat if you’ve already had seven blocks in a game twice) and points scored, and appeared far from tired out at either basket.

In fact, Hibbert was feeling so good, he mentioned a point in the game in which he signaled to head coach Frank Vogel that he wanted to stay out on the floor even though Vogel was about to sub-in for him.

“I had it going,” Hibbert said. “I saw Coach was about to sub me out, and I was like, ‘I have it going.’ No offense to Ian [Mahinmi] – he’s a terrific player – but some nights, you know you’re feeling it, and you just want to keep going.”

The Pacers hope Hibbert will be feeling it on the offensive end more often going forward. After all, it’s perhaps no coincidence that Indiana broke the 100-point threshold for the first time all season on a night that Hibbert turned in a season-high scoring effort.

Paul George said that having Hibbert add a strong offensive presence to what has been a torrid defensive start to the season only increases the Pacers’ odds of winning, something they have already become very accustomed to with a 9-0 start.

“When Roy’s playing at that level, offensively he’s a load and defensively, still, he’s remaining the best defensive big in this league,” George said. “And we really have a great shot of winning.”

As for Raduljica and the Bucks, they became the most recent victims of the juggernaut that is the Indiana Pacers, a team that is perhaps symbolized best by the man in the middle, the rim protector who burned them Friday night by dropping 24 points to go along with his usual unparalleled defensive performance.

Maybe Raduljica’s understatement did sum it up best: “It’s pretty tough.”

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