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Off-Season Work Paying Off for Hibbert

by Mark Montieth |

May 9, 2013, 5:20 PM

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The question hung in the air long enough to draw a three-second violation.

“Are you the best defensive center in the league?”

Roy Hibbert slapped his cell phone against his left thigh a few times, either mulling the question or daring himself to answer it.

“Yes,” he finally said, matter-of-factly.

Whether he is or isn't the best defender at his position in the NBA, Hibbert is clearly the best hope the Pacers have of eliminating New York in their second-round playoff series. His defense at the rim, a strong point all season, is nearly half of the equation of containing Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, and will become even more important should Amar'e Stoudemire return for Saturday's game, as expected.

Consider that the Pacers outscored New York in the paint 46-32 in their Game 1 victory, and were outscored by New York 52-40 in their Game 2 loss. Hibbert's the player most poised to influence those numbers, although he obviously needs help from his teammates to avoid a scene resembling Manhattan rush hour traffic in the foul lane.

If Hibbert can block a few shots, alter a few others, and dissuade a few drivers from approaching the basket without getting in foul trouble, the Pacers' hopes rise exponentially.

“He's the best in the league at earning no-calls at the rim,” coach Frank Vogel said earlier in the series. “That's where he's grown the most over the last four years. We know the way to beat the Knicks is to make plays without fouling them. You have to make plays on the ball without fouling. That's the goal.”

Hibbert finished 10th in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year honors this season, an annoyance for both him and Vogel. He fell behind five others who play power forward or center: Marc Gasol (1), Serge Ibaka (3), Joakim Noah (4), Tim Duncan (6), and Larry Sanders (7). Knicks center Tyson Chandler, who won last year, finished 13th, while Lakers center Dwight Howard, who won the three seasons prior to that, finished 14th.

He has an opportunity to elevate his status in this series. He had nine total blocked shots in the first two games, after getting 11 in the six games of the first-round series with Atlanta, and was the focal point of Game 1. Television analyst Jeff Van Gundy, a former Knicks coach, called him “The Great Wall of Hibbert.”

Building a wall underneath the basket isn't as easy as it might seem. Many centers try to move their feet and give help, usually arriving too late to get in front of a quick perimeter player, and many hack downward to try to block shot attempts, drawing fouls. To stand still, or jump straight up, while holding your arms straight upward while charging opponents run into you can get old after a while. It's the purest form of passive-aggression on the basketball court.

“It’s pretty tough and it takes a lot of wind out of you,” Hibbert said after he dominated Game 1. “It’s tiring to have someone constantly running into you full speed and you have to take the hit and try not to fall back too hard and get back into the play.”

Hibbert honed that art in hot summer workouts with Vogel after his first couple of seasons in the NBA. Vogel, then an assistant coach for Jim O'Brien, had people – sometimes managers, sometimes teammates – drive to the basket and charge into Hibbert time after time while he learned to go straight up and keep his arms straight. Sometimes it was one-on-one, sometimes it was two-on-one, but either way Hibbert would get knocked down or absorb a body blow to his sternum.

It also helped that Vogel convinced O'Brien to shift their defensive philosophy for Hibbert, focusing less on taking charges and more on protecting the rim. Vogel had taken a tip from Dikembe Mutombo when he was backing up Houston center Yao Ming. Yao was trying to take charges away from the basket early in his NBA career, but Mutombo – who ranks second all-time in blocked shots and was a four-time Defensive Player of the Year selection – posed a logical question:

Why do you want a 7-6 player trying to take charges and falling to the floor? In other words, why neutralize his greatest asset, verticality? In still other words, isn't it better to be knocked down while blocking or defending a shot above the rim, rather than by someone still on the ground 10 feet from the basket?

“Those types of concepts were things I worked with Roy on,” Vogel said. “Put the back of your hands on the front of the rim. Don't go outside the paint to give help. If you're in the charge circle and not on the ground, you can earn a no-call.”

Hibbert actually averaged more fouls this season than in any of his previous four, but they were more constructive fouls, usually committed while trying to defend a shot rather than shuffling his feet and reaching at a ballhandler away from the basket. His willingness to guard the rim allows teammates such as Paul George – who finished eighth in the Defensive POY voting – to play more aggressively on the perimeter, knowing Hibbert will provide a second line of defense.

“It gives me all the confidence,” George said. “I know that I have the foot-speed to stay in front of guys, but I can really come up and pressure, get into him, and really be a hassle on the perimeter because Roy protects the rim so well.”

Hibbert will have to do so on more of a full-time basis in this series. He averaged 28.7 minutes per game during the regular season, but 37.5 in the first two games against the Knicks, and likely will have to continue that workload. The infamous timeout that Vogel called with a few minutes left in the third quarter of Game 2, which led to a 30-2 Knicks run, probably didn't have as much to do with the stoppage of play breaking the Pacers' momentum as did Hibbert leaving the game during that timeout.

Vogel replaced Hibbert with Jeff Pendergraph at the time, thinking Pendergraph would provide more flexibility on offense against the Knicks' traps and double-teams. He said he'll likely go with Ian Manhimi on Saturday and keep the focus on rim protection.

Either way, Hibbert's going to play as much as possible. He didn't put in all that work in the summer to sit and watch in the playoffs.

“We take care of our bodies,” he said. “You see guys on the Bulls playing like 40-plus minutes, so we’re going to step up to the challenge if we have to. It’s the playoffs. Every game is a must-win.”

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