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Hibbert Regaining All-Star Form

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 4, 2013, 2:13 AM

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The Pacers have seen two Roy Hibberts this season. The distracted one who struggled to convert the easiest of shots around the basket, and the one who has showed up for the past six games.

“The All-Star Roy,” Paul George calls that one.

That Hibbert scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots in the Pacers' 97-92 win over Chicago on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, continuing a stretch of play going back to the Charlotte game before the All-Star break that has been refreshing, encouraging and vital to his teammates. It isn't mere happenstance that the Pacers have won all six of those games, nor that they lost the one he missed because of suspension, last Thursday against the Clippers.

Hibbert's six-pack has featured a scoring average of 14.5 points on 57 percent shooting. Before this stretch he was averaging fewer than 10 points and shooting about 40 percent from the field, hardly what the Pacers' executive branch had in mind when they awarded him that $58 million contract over the summer.

Two things are going on here. Hibbert is learning not to fret over the high expectations aroused by his mega-deal, and his right wrist is feeling much better, thank you.

“It's getting to where it should have been at the beginning of the year,” he said of his recent offensive performance.

No doubt, Hibbert is a conscientious sort who always means well. He's the guy in the locker room who asks reporters crowding around his locker to move out of the way so that neighbor D.J. Augustin can dress. That attitude was a handicap early in the season, though, when he felt pressure to live up to last season's All-Star selection and consequent All-Star salary. Lately, coaches and teammates have convinced him to relax and enjoy it.

“Coach challenged him to be kind of aggressive but at the same time take his time when he got (the ball),” George Hill said. “Early in the season he was rushing it. He had little jitters with everybody thinking he had to prove something because of his contract. We told him, you don't have to prove anything, we know the player you are, we know you can score the ball, just take your time.”

Or, as David West put it: “I don't think he's over-thinking it now.”

It hasn't hurt that Hibbert's shooting wrist no longer hurts. He injured it in last season's playoff series against Miami, when he tried to defend LeBron James' dunk in a game in Miami. He had an MRI there that revealed no serious injury, just a nagging one. It flared up again early in the season, and it required treatment from the Pacers' training staff.

No longer.

“It's back where it should be,” he said.

One of the odd things about the Pacers' season so far is that negatives have begat positives. Danny Granger's absence allowed Paul George to become an All-Star and Lance Stephenson and Orlando Johnson to get more playing time and advance their games. D.J. Augustin's early struggles as the backup point guard allowed Ben Hansbrough to gain a sliver of confidence and seemed to settle Augustin when he returned to the playing rotation. Gerald Green's disappointing play helped create Johnson's opportunity.

Hibbert's offensive woes, meanwhile, helped inspire his defensive improvement. He's become one of the best rim-protectors in the NBA. With 156 blocks so far, he's on pace to accumulate the second-most in franchise history, behind Jermaine O'Neal's 228 in 2000-01. If anyone doubted his defensive value, it was verified in last Thursday's loss to the Clippers, who scored 50 points in the paint in their 99-91 win at the fieldhouse.

“That was the first time it was evident in terms of his presence and his size and what he does for our defense,” West said. “He gives us confidence out on the perimeter, because we know he's back there.”

The superlative defense wouldn't be happening, though, without the substandard offense. While all those shots within the paint rimmed out, bringing anguish to fans and Hibbert alike, he was able to satisfy his conscience at the defensive end.

“It's been a godsend, to tell you the truth, that my offense wasn't going at the beginning of the season,” he said. “I tried to focus on my defense, so I tried to protect the rim and protect the paint as much as possible. That's still my role, but me figuring that out first really helped us out.

“I'd rather get blocked shots than score now. Paul, David, George, Lance (Stephenson) … they all can score. And whenever they need a low-post bucket, I try to do my thing.”

Hibbert came into the NBA four seasons ago like most rookies, foul-prone and uncertain. He worked on defensive drills with Vogel and Dan Burke for 90 minutes twice a week in the summer, which improved his respect for the concept of defense and his skill-set. He learned to go straight up to defend drives to the basket, rather than hacking the shooters, and he learned to communicate with referees to make them aware of it. He's only fouled out of four games all season, a respectable number for a shot blocker.

“He's 7-foot-2 and has a 7-foot-9 wingspan, but he came into the league that size and didn't understand how to protect the rim,” Vogel said. “He's got a great intent to learn and improve. He really has improved the last couple of years, understanding angles, understanding how to make plays without fouling. He's growing.”

Hibbert's recovery of his previous offensive game was the Pacers' greatest need before the All-Star break. They still have issues, though. Granger, after looking so promising in his previous two games, missed all three shots in eight first-half minutes on Sunday. After the third one, with 6:55 left in the second quarter, he ran back on defense and rubbed his left knee. He left the game at 6:26, and it was announced at halftime he would not return. He wasn't available in the locker room afterward, but Vogel said the trainers described the problem as mere soreness and did not have concern for his availability long-term.

The bench remains erratic, too. It scored a season-low eight points in more than 53 minutes on Sunday. If Granger cannot return to full strength, it likely will remain an undependable source of scoring.

The Pacers' greatest remaining dilemma is beating winning teams on the road, a point West raised on Sunday. They only have two such victories so far, over Chicago and Memphis, and it will be an obvious necessity in the playoffs. They have future games at Miami, Houston, Los Angeles (Clippers), New York and Boston to prove they can do it.

Roy Hibbert could make a major difference in passing those final exams before the playoffs. Only All-Star Roy, though.

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