By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
VIDEO: Relive the first-round series between the Pacers and Hawks
INDIANAPOLIS – Nene, the one-name Wizard, is playing at the moment like an All-Star. Marcin Gortat was invaluable to Washington’s rise to the postseason and push past the Chicago Bulls in the first round.
And the Indiana Pacers almost couldn’t be happier to face them.
It’s rare when any NBA team welcomes an opponent that has formidable big men on its roster, but in the Pacers’ case, that means center Roy Hibbert gets to come out and play. Indiana’s league-leading defense was built around its 7-foot-2 tower in the middle. Its offense hums best when Hibbert is available for putbacks, short jump shots and his toy box of little flips and hooks. So the matchup with the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1, and the mismatch it brought for Hibbert, was a problem that became an issue and nearly festered into a situation.
The Hawks spread the floor and hoist 3-pointers more than any other team in the playoffs – actually, that should be hoisted since Indiana did put them down in seven games. But that series went to the max in part because Hibbert was so ineffective chasing Atlanta’s Pero Antic or Paul Millsap out to 3-point range. It took the bigger man out of his comfort zone defensively and often left him harmlessly in the DMZ between the restricted area and the arc. He doesn’t have the game or the role in Indiana’s attack to punish the Hawks at the other end in a heavy dose of post-ups. Ultimately, he wound up on the bench, his confidence seemingly bottomed out.
Hibbert’s effectiveness had waned late in the regular season, too, so the criticism already coming his way intensified. There rarely is anywhere for a guy his size to hide, but this was way worse, his struggles played out and picked at in the glare of network TV coverage.
Throughout, though, the Pacers had his back.
“They never felt like I was in any sort of danger of not playing,” Hibbert said Sunday, a little agitated as a small group of reporters asked him about his struggles. “We didn’t really listen to or cater to any of the stuff that was being said on the outside. So as far as all that goes, that was whatever people wanted to say.”
Hibbert’s teammates and coaches knew all about the Xs & Os that meant he would be less effective against Atlanta. They also know his sensitive nature and how it might hurt him, not contributing and then taking heat publicly for that.
And they view Hibbert as a friend and a brother. That meant staying loyal and supportive was vital well beyond self-interest in their playoff ambitions.
“All of it was loyalty,” All-Star wing Paul George said. “We’re loyal to each and every one of our guys here. Roy Hibbert is a big brother, someone who’s been in my corner when things weren’t going well for me. I was always in his ear, always in his corner, telling him to stay confidence and ‘Don’t allow anything to creep into your mind.’
“He’s been an All-Star two times now. It’s not like he’s some average player – he’s a big-time player for us. It was just a tough moment. You’re not making shots and … Roy’s a guy who likes to be active on social media. So I think a lot of it got to him. But he’s got to just be above that.”
Forward David West said: “More than anything, we’re a better basketball team when he’s engaged and he’s playing well and he’s being productive, and when he’s on the floor. It was about making sure he didn’t get too low – we knew he was down on himself and disappointed he couldn’t contribute the way he wanted to.”
West knows how fragile any player’s confidence can be, especially someone like Hibbert who isn’t gifted with the sort of superior athletic ability to which he can turn to create, on talent alone, some positive moments for himself. Hibbert without confidence might as well be sitting in the stands.
“It’s hard to recover [confidence],” West said. “I think that’s human nature. But with him, everybody was encouraging. He was just trying to work hisself out of what he was in, and before Game 5, before Game 6, it was just the same message [from teammates]. ‘You’re going to have the best game of the series for us.’ And then he came through [in Game 7].”
Hibbert took five shots in the first quarter and made four of them. He blocked two shots in the second and, as the misfiring Hawks scrambled for offense wherever they could find it, had three more swats after halftime. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting with seven rebounds and five blocks in 31 minutes, after averaging 4.0 points, 3.2 boards, 0.7 blocks and 20.3 minutes in the first six games, while shooting 30.3 percent.
Now Hibbert gets to battle with Nene, a terrific athlete with a mid-range game that keeps him five or six feet inside the 3-point line. Gortat is a traditional center who is at his best inside.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel said Sunday he saw no extra spring in Hibbert’s step, either from the Game 7 performance or the sense now of being more needed. But now at least, any frustration the center feels likely will come on the court, not from being the fork at a soup kitchen.
“I’ve seen him go through struggles in the past,” Vogel said, “and he usually comes out of it at some point, usually quicker than he did this time. I’m not saying he’s out of it, but … when you see a guy play well, you know he’s capable of doing it. He’s doing the right things, he’s putting in the work. Usually that sort of thing turns around.”
When Hibbert turns around, he’ll see a bunch of Pacers behind him. They have his back.