Hibbert Returns to Form In Game 7 Victory

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 3, 2014 | 11:15 p.m.

The questions about his once-struggling teammate kept coming, one after another, all milking the same theme. Why had Roy Hibbert been struggling? How much of a relief was it that Roy Hibbert had finally played well? Had you been trying to encourage Roy Hibbert?

Finally, finishing what had felt to him like an interrogation, Lance Stephenson turned away from the reporters semi-circling his locker and mumbled with high-pitched annoyance, “Man. Leave Roy alone.”

Hibbert had been the elephant in the Pacers' locker room throughout its first-round series with Atlanta, a primary topic of discussion even when he wasn't playing. And, mostly he hadn't been playing. Well, or often. He entered Saturday's culmination of their first-round series with Atlanta averaging 4 points and 3.2 rebounds, had shot 30 percent from the field and had played just 12 minutes and change in each of the two previous games.

So, the fact he scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked five shots and logged 31 minutes in Saturday's 92-80 win over Atlanta seemed more like a revelation – an exhumation, even – than the normal game it once had been.

“You always feel for guys on your team that are struggling,” Hibbert's coach and fan club president Frank Vogel said. “You do what you can to push them or encourage them, challenge them when they need to. It’s like your family, it’s like your children. You want the best for them. (It was) very gratifying to stay with him and then to see him step up the way he did today.”

So chalk one up for Vogel, who stuck with Hibbert in the starting lineup in the face of local and national media criticism. Even with the Pacers down 3-2 heading to Atlanta on Thursday, even with vultures circling around his team and his job security, Vogel held firm.

The widespread perception was that Vogel's stubbornness had more to do with psychology than basketball. He was giving jolts to Hibbert's confidence, like paramedics do with defibrillators to heart attack victims, rather than putting his best lineup on the floor.

Talking with the media before the game, Vogel denied all charges. He's a coach from the modern breed, mindful of every stat, and the numbers told him that his team had been most effective when Hibbert was on the court. It didn't seem that way to the casual observer, and there had to be a reason why Hibbert had been nearly invisible in fourth quarters throughout the series. Regardless, Vogel had his reasons.

“I know there's a perception out there that that's the case, but it has nothing to do with it,” Vogel said, when asked if he was trying to keep Hibbert uplifted. “If it would help us win this series by starting small or playing small with any of the five starters coming out, that's what we would do. It isn't about keeping anybody uplifted. Roy Hibbert has a very important role in beating the Hawks.”

He did, finally, but the game didn't start that way. For a moment, it was looking like another quick trip to the bench accompanied by some boos. Hibbert controlled the opening tap out of bounds, giving Atlanta the first possession. He was stripped by Jeff Teague on the Pacers' first possession, leading to Teague's breakaway dunk. He fumbled a pass from Lance Stephenson on their third possession, although Stephenson was awarded the turnover.

Finally, with 8:25 left in the quarter, he got a gimme rebound of David West's miss for his first field goal since Game 4. He later ran off three more field goals over a 2 minute, 24 second stretch, earning a standing ovation – yes, a standing ovation – when he was subbed out with 3:21 left.

The best indication of Hibbert's renewal was the five blocked shots, one more than he had managed in the previous six games. The second-best indication was his energy on the bench. He stood throughout most of the time he wasn't in the game, cheering his teammates and imploring the crowd to ramp up the noise in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Contrast that to April 6, when he had been pulled from a regular season game against the Hawks at halftime and pouted throughout the second half, creating a national scene.

Hibbert might have had an argument for celebrating this performance, but he didn't. He sat in front of his corner locker, head bowed, answering the same questions from the waves of reporters surrounding his space as briefly and quietly as possible.

This was the gist of it.

“Felt good. I've been in Game 7s before.”

“Just was in the right position at the right time. I tried to play as aggressively as possible.”

“People have been talking about taking me out of the lineup, but Coach is a stat guy. We weren't worried about what other people were saying.”

Stephenson and the rest of Hibbert's teammates were more eloquent, which raises the argument that some good could come from Hibbert's weeks of travail and turmoil. They showed their support throughout, didn't bail on him even when it seemed he had bailed on them. Now, he should feel better than ever about his place in the group.

“We've been encouraging him,” West said. “Just kept telling him, the next game you're going to have your best game of the series. He was in a tough spot, because (of match-up problems created by the Hawks' small lineup). He just made an impact. We knew he would at some point.”

Or, as Stephenson put it: “Big Dog's back to himself.”

The line of thought in the Pacers' locker room is that Hibbert will be a greater force in the second round against Washington, which plays a traditional big lineup. He won't have to chase anyone on the perimeter this time, won't be isolated on guys five inches smaller trying to take him off the dribble.

“In this next round against the Wizards, it’s his round,” Paul George said.

Maybe, maybe not. But at least there's hope once again for Hibbert. Which means there's hope for the Pacers, too.

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