Notebook: Hibbert Aiming for Consistency

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

May 9, 2014 | 2:05 p.m.

WASHINGTON – After evening their Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the Washington Wizards with an 86-82 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday night, the Pacers took a rare day off on Thursday.

It was the first day since before the start of the playoffs that the team did not have either a formal practice or a game, which also meant that there was no media availability. The team flew into Washington, D.C. on Thursday afternoon ahead of Game 3 on Friday night at the Verizon Center.

One might have expected Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who grew up in the D.C. area and starred at both Georgetown Preparatory School and University, to have spent Thursday night catching up with family and friends. But while the media seemed eager to play up the homecoming storyline, Hibbert insisted he’s in town strictly for business.

“I haven’t seen anybody,” Hibbert said following Friday morning’s shootaround. “…Usually when I go into playoff mode, just try to settle down. Whether it was last year or the year before, I try not to have too many people in the circle.”

Even though Hibbert squashed that storyline with his best Thomas Wolfe impersonation, there is no question that the 7-foot-2 former Hoya has been the central figure so far in this series. He was the goat of Game 1, when he failed to score a point or collect a rebound in nearly 18 minutes of action. He was the hero of Game 2, scoring 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go along with nine rebounds and two blocks.

Which begs the question, which Hibbert will show up in Game 3?

“He promised me he’s going to have 28 again,” head coach Frank Vogel joked.

In truth, the answer to that question is probably somewhere in between the extremes of the first two games. The Pacers don’t typically need Hibbert to carry the offensive load to be successful, but they also can’t afford to have him be a no-show. Where he fits along that sliding scale on Friday night will have a big impact on the Pacers’ chances.

“I’ve seen tape of Game 1 and Game 2,” he said. “It was a big difference in just how I ran the court, tried to offensive rebound, and (defended).

“(I’m) just trying to be consistent, and trying to find where I can be effective on the court, whether blocking shots, clogging the lane, contesting jump shots on their bigs, and running the floor and trying to get early position. That’s my mindset.”

In the aftermath of Game 2, several people have been credited with assisting in Hibbert’s turnaround performance. One of those people is Hibbert’s college coach, John Thompson III, who traveled to Indianapolis and sat courtside for Game 2.

Hibbert was very grateful for Thompson’s gesture, and said the Georgetown coach gave him some good advice before the game.

“He just told me to work on positioning and bending my knees a little bit more so I don’t get pushed off balance, things that a good coach sees the small details in,” Hibbert said. “I’m very appreciative of him taking the time. I know this is like scouting season. I’m, what, six years out of college? So for him to keep giving me advice, I’m appreciative.”

After Game 2, Hibbert also went out of his way to thank his teammate and fellow All-Star, Paul George, for taking Hibbert out fishing with him on Tuesday to help clear his mind and offer him encouragement.

But George was quick to point out on Friday that Hibbert deserves the lion’s share of the credit for his improved performance.

“Everything is really on Roy,” George said. “And he’s made that commitment this past game to make sure he buries his man under the rim.”

George To Keep Shooting

Hibbert’s production has dominated the narrative so far in the series, but the fact remains that the Pacers offense runs primarily through Paul George and Lance Stephenson.

Through the first two games of the series, neither player has shot the ball particularly well.

George averaged nearly 24 points and 46 percent shooting against Atlanta in the first round, but has shot 9-for-30 from the field (30 percent) and 1-for-8 from 3-point range in two games against Washington.

Stephenson shot nearly 48 percent against the Hawks, but has made just 7-of-25 shots (28 percent) so far against the Wizards.

Hibbert’s surprise outburst and the Pacers’ team defense were enough to eke out a victory in Game 2, but Indiana will need at least one of them to find their stroke to win the series. George, for one, is confident that that will happen.

“I’ll eventually get into a rhythm and those shots will fall,” George said. “I’ve been getting the same shots that I’ve been getting in the first series against the Hawks and throughout the whole regular season, so it’s just about keep shooting those same shots.”

Pacers point guard George Hill agreed: “It’s good shots, (George) normally makes those shots, it’s just not falling. Everyone goes through (shooting slumps), but we’re going to continue to give him the ball in his sweet spots and he’s going to continue to take them.”

Granted, two games is a rather small sample size, and both George and Stephenson have continued to produce. They have combined for 25 rebounds and 16 assists in the first two games, and each hit key shots down the stretch in Game 2. George scored on consecutive possessions in one crucial stretch with under four minutes remaining, and Stephenson’s jumper with 21 seconds left (off an assist from George) effectively sealed the win.

And while Washington’s defense deserves some credit for making it difficult on the Pacers’ wings, the larger evidence suggests that George and Stephenson are simply missing a few extra shots. The Wizards ranked in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage defense during the regular season.

Of the two, George is the one being guarded by Washington’s best perimeter defender, the 6-foot-8 Trevor Ariza. George was also tasked in Game 2 with guarding Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ leading scorer this postseason, on defense. But George bristled at the suggestion that chasing Beal on one end has made it tougher to deal with Ariza on the other.

“I got the energy to do both of them,” George said.

Avoiding the Early Hole

Although they are the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers have been playing from behind for much of this postseason.

On the grand level, the Pacers dropped Games 1, 3, and 5 against Atlanta, never leading the series until they won Game 7. They followed that up by dropping Game 1 to the Wizards, falling into another early hole.

Game-by-game, falling into early holes has been a consistent issue across both series. Washington scored the first eight points of Game 1, and led by as many as 14 in the first quarter, a stretch that proved to be the difference in the game. Indiana came out with a different mindset in Game 2, racing out to a 13-5 lead in the early going.

With the series shifting to a more hostile environment, getting off on the right foot is all the more important.

“We’ve just got to come out looking to take control,” Pacers forward David West said. “We can’t get flustered early. We know it’s going to be great energy in this crowd.”

Added George: “Tonight, it’s going to be all about bringing the fight to them. It’s going to be a crazy environment, I’m sure it’s packed out. But we’ve got to make our presence felt, and that’s going to have to start as soon as tip off.”

The Pacers would love to take the series lead a little earlier this time around. In George Hill’s mind, the key to doing that is to approach Game 3 like they’re playing from behind.

“I think we need to go into it like we’re down 0-2,” he said. “I think when our backs are against the wall and everybody’s playing desperate, that’s when we play our best ball.”

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The Pacers host the Wizards in Game 5 of the Eastern Conf. Semifinals on May 13