By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – They came for an intervention and stayed for a basketball game, a performance from the Indiana Pacers that was as much about chasing the demons away from Roy Hibbert as it was about beating the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Without the former, there was going to be a slim chance at the latter, considering how balled up Hibbert and his Pacers teammates and the fans and the city’s media had gotten over the Indiana big man’s eerie drop in confidence and effectiveness. What the 18,165 in the stands at Bankers Life Fieldhouse got, in a massive session of group therapy, were 28 points and nine rebounds from Hibbert and an 86-82 victory that kept the flames of June at least flickering.
“David [West, Pacers teammate] was talking to me about being the person who rescues yourself when you’re in the middle of the ocean,” a subdued Hibbert said afterward. “There’s nobody that can throw a life raft or a rope out to help you, so I got to do it myself.”
That wasn’t quite it. Hibbert did have to look inward to pull off his bad-Hollywood script of a game. But no way, no how did he do it by himself. The house was his. His teammates were eager to serve him, not with any specific play-calling from coach Frank Vogel but by seeing him and rewarding him with the ball when he got and held some position against Wizards’ big men Nene and Marcin Gortat.
“When they try to get the ball into me sometimes, it takes a lot of time off the shot clock,” Hibbert said. “Coach and myself talked at great length after the last game – I was in his office for like an hour, we chit-chatted – and I told him you don’t need to call plays for me. I’ll just defend on one end and rebound, block shots, and then I’ll try to be the first big down the court before the defense settles to make a move.”
Hibbert’s college coach at Georgetown, John Thompson III, was in the building to lend support and so was his agent, David Falk, who locked Hibbert up in a pep talk near one baseline moments before tipoff.
And then, on the game’s first possession, the redemption began.
“The ball got tipped around, Lance [Stephenson] threw it to him, he just threw a prayer up and it goes in,” Washington’s Drew Gooden said. “I looked at Andre [Miller] and said, ‘That’s gonna get him going right there.’ “
Hibbert hit two more shots and scored seven points in the first quarter. By halftime, he had 17.
“You’d see a loose ball get to him with one second on the shot clock,” Washington point guard John Wall groused, “and he’d make a jump shot.”
It was that sort of evening, overdue and impossible to overdo.
“I felt that I put a lot of pressure on myself to get going,” Hibbert said. “I think I was making a lot of excuses the second half of the season and then into the playoffs. So I decided to take it into my own hands and change things around.”
An All-Star through the season’s first half, the 7-foot-2 Hibbert sputtered and swooned after that as if someone had slipped Kryptonite into his compression shorts. In seven first-round games against Atlanta and the opener of this series Monday, he no-showed in four. Three times, he went scoreless, getting up a total of five shots. Five times he managed three or fewer rebounds. We could go on, but the ugliest numbers got plenty of play, his points and rebounds vying with Flounder‘s GPA: Zero-point-zero.
The sniping locally and nationally at Hibbert’s game, his manhood, his psyche reached epic, withering proportions. Social media was crammed with barbs, Photoshop wit and memes of meanness.
“People have been piling on Roy,” West said. “He’s very aware. So that’s been a part of this thing. We’ve told him to try to unplug himself from that. And he’s tried, he’s worked on it. But you can’t help but hear the criticism.
“Our message to him has been encouragement. When he plays well, we’re a better team. There’s no other way to put it.”
Actually, West and reserve Rasual Butler reportedly aired out Hibbert behind closed doors Monday after his hollow performance in Game 1. Their anger apparently was tinged with enough desperation and empathy to nudge Hibbert toward his Game 2. Outgoing in good or average times, Hibbert “probably said five words” around his teammates at practice Tuesday. When they gathered for shootaround Wednesday morning, he was quiet again.
“I don’t know about ‘tough love,’ ” Butler said, staying coy after the game. “It’s brotherly love.”
Hibbert got a dose of that, too, from Paul George, his All-Star teammate. Some of the speculation about the Pacers’ splintering chemistry has focused on those two, but a day on the lake met that head-on.
“I fiercely believe the biggest person who helped me out here was Paul,” Hibbert said. “Yesterday after practice, he invited me out on his boat. We fished for about two hours and just relaxed. And didn’t talk about basketball. Just talked about life and trying to catch some bass.
“He reached out and got my mind off things, and this is hopefully something I can build on. He’s a great teammate. So I really do appreciate him reaching out. Because he didn’t have to.”
Frankly, they all had to. Even if the Pacers could manage to beat the Wizards a time or two with Hibbert in full funk, Washington isn’t Atlanta. There would be no advancing if Indiana suddenly went doughnut, losing his defensive presence and at least perceived threat he poses at the other end.
As it was, with Hibbert rolling, Washington had the lead with less than five minutes left. Wall and Bradley Beal went a little haywire around the 3-minute mark, down 82-79, chucking up three unnecessary 3-pointers. Indiana perked up defensively to close out, even though the Wizards – losing on the road for the first time after a 4-0 start to this postseason – head home with confidence.
Hibbert just had more for the 48 minutes they all played Wednesday.
Can he repeat it Friday and Sunday in D.C., back home (he went to Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md.)? The Wizards spoke of resetting their defense to account for him more properly. But no one from either side was promising anything.
“Every game, we’re expecting him to have an impact,” West said, beating the encouragement drum. “[Expecting] him to play his game and play well, regardless of what he’s done previously.
“I just thought his body language was a little different. When it was all said and done, I thought he took probably as much as he could take, in terms of people’s criticism. And I just thought he made it up in his mind that he was going to respond and have a big game.”