With His Hunger on Defense, There’s No Good Game Plan Against Roy Hibbert

Manny Randhawa | Pacers.com

November 9, 2013

After the Pacers defeated the Chicago Bulls by 17 points on Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Roy Hibbert – who blocked five shots in the contest – tweeted the following:

“DPoY,” of course, stands for Defensive Player of the Year, a title that Hibbert covets after finishing in 10th place in the voting for the NBA’s All-Defensive teams last season.

Hibbert has a long memory, and don’t think for a second he’s forgotten that vote.

“That fueled me the whole summer,” Hibbert said after the Pacers beat the Toronto Raptors Friday night. “I thought about that every time I was doing a dead lift, a back squat. Every time I was doing a high pull or a clean, I was thinking about how I was left off the All-Defensive Team, and how I was 10th in the voting.”

That determination to take his defensive game to another level presents a Hibbert-sized dilemma for Pacers opponents this season. Because as the big man alters opponents’ shots, he also alters their game plan, causing more field goal attempts outside the paint. For Hibbert, that means less energy expended on the defensive side and more in the tank to dedicate to his offense, as he demonstrated with 20 points against Toronto Friday night.

Hibbert’s intensified defensive focus began right after the Pacers fell just short of the NBA Finals last June, and his offseason was geared toward adding muscle and becoming even more tenacious on the defensive end than he had been in 2012-13.

“This summer I had just one focus, one thing on my mind,” Hibbert said. “It was just putting on size so I could bang in the post, be more efficient. So I came into camp at like, 290 [pounds], and I’m about 286 right now. I’m still moving pretty well. I think I’m moving better than I was last year at 275.”

So far, the offseason work is bearing fruit. Through six games – all of which Indiana has won – Hibbert leads the NBA with 28 blocks, which translates into 4.67 blocks per game. The next closest player in the league is New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, who is averaging 4.33. After that, no one is averaging more than 2.60.

Hibbert also leads the NBA in percentage of shots blocked at 11.3, and overall defensive rating (points per 100 opponents’ possessions) at 85. So far, that defensive rating is nearly 12 points better than his second-ranked 96.9 from last season.

If you think Hibbert might be satisfied with his sensational defensive start, however, think again.

“I want to be built for defense and built for the long playoff run,” Hibbert said. “I’m happy with my progress. I still have to get better, though.”

Hibbert getting better is a scary prospect for Pacers opponents, given that the 7’2” center has already turned in two games this season in which he’s had seven blocks, and two more in which he’s had five.

Hibbert said he knows he won’t be able to keep putting up those gaudy figures, but his torrid defensive start to this season is a reflection of his new mindset, one that is already causing opposing teams to alter their strategies on offense. A case in point was Friday night’s game against Toronto, in which the Raptors wouldn’t challenge Hibbert inside as much as teams had in the first five games of the season, instead settling for more jumpers outside the paint.

“I don’t anticipate blocking five, six, seven shots a game,” Hibbert said. “Because teams are going to realize what I can do defensively in the paint, so they’re going to take longer two’s like Rudy Gay and those guys were taking long jump shots [Friday night]. Toronto didn’t really attack me as much in the paint as other teams have earlier. So I don’t anticipate it. If I come away with a one or two-block night, I feel like I did my job because mentally, they know I’m there and I’m going to do my job.”

Hibbert admitted that one unintended consequence of his focus on improving defensively has been a slight decrease in his offensive production. While averaging nearly three more blocks per game than his career average, as well as almost two more rebounds, Hibbert is averaging 10.2 points per contest compared with an 11.2 career average even after scoring 20 against Toronto.

“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 explained. “[The key for me is to] just take my time. Paul [George] always tells me when I catch it, just take my time. 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 added that his improvement on the offensive end of the floor Friday – resulting in a 9-for-14 shooting performance – was the result of him being more deliberate, as well as not getting worn out on defense because Toronto didn’t challenge him as much inside.

“[Friday night] I tried to take my time,” he said. "The Raptors didn’t really test me as much in the paint, so I wasn’t as tired. So I was able to execute a little bit more and shoot a higher percentage in the paint.”

Therein lies the problem for Pacers opponents, who appear to be in a lose-lose situation when it comes to formulating a game plan against No. 55. Challenging him at the rim so far this season has resulted in statistics like the one that came out of Indiana’s win over Chicago: the Bulls scored just 14 points in the paint all night. But laying back and settling for longer field goal attempts leaves the big man with more energy to burn teams at the other end of the floor, as he demonstrated against the Raptors.

In a zero-sum equation like that one, where there’s a lose-lose on one side, there’s a win-win on the other.

And the Pacers like that math.

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