INDIANAPOLIS – The most fragile psyche on the NBA's most combustible contender breathed out a labored sigh, refusing to indulge the question on Sunday night. Here it was Roy Hibbert, a victory to validate the way these Indiana Pacers had been constructed to beat the Miami Heat, an Eastern Conference finals Game 1 born of the blueprint for usurping the two-time NBA champions.
"Ah, I'm not going to talk about that," Hibbert said. "We did a lot of talking earlier in the season. I'm trying to be the best Roy I can be out there…
"I'm just not going to talk about all that."
In pursuit of the Heat, these Pacers learned the hardest lessons of all. From an anointing as heirs to the Miami throne, to bickering, dysfunctional teammates on the brink of collapse, to a precise 107-96 vanquishing of the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday afternoon, these were the Pacers responsible for the best record in the Eastern Conference, full of trust and toughness and a humbled gratitude that comes with staying the course, staying connected and staying alive.
Miami is still the favorite to win this series, still the strongest and surest mentally, still the two-time defending champions who've proven most dependable to hold together and rise above. Soon, LeBron James will be a force and Hibbert understands the truth: "They will test our will…"
He's used to it. Hibbert is the playoff's survivor, his 19 points and nine rebounds reminding everyone he's the transformative force of this franchise. "We all know that we're not going anywhere if he's not playing well, if he's not playing at a high level," Indiana's David West said.
For all the issues within these Pacers, nothing had been as alarming and season-altering as the bottoming-out of Hibbert. Every year, it happens. Sometimes, it's early. Sometimes, it's the middle of the season. This time, it was late. Hibbert stopped functioning on the floor, a most intelligent and thoughtful man reduced to the introspection and self-doubt that tore his belief to shreds and left him a lost cause for weeks.
"When he isn't playing well, it weighs on him – not just mentally, but physically," West said. "He's always his own worst critic."
In so many ways, Hibbert is the window into these Pacers. Everyone expects the letdown now. Everyone expects the Pacers to breathe out, relax and let the Heat impose their will in Game 2. Still, there was something promising about these Pacers on Sunday – the most unselfish of ball movement, the refusal to be loose with the ball and allow Miami what the Pacers call "turnovers for touchdowns." There was a defense that constructed a wall in the paint on James and Dwyane Wade, with Hibbert, 7-foot-2, standing strongest on Sunday.
When it was over, there were no bold words out of the Pacers, nothing resembling those young Pacers of months ago who seemed to take so much of this return to the Eastern Conference finals for granted. They struggled to get back here, threatened implosion, and none of the Pacers dared turn Game 1 into something it wasn't. They have a long, long way to go, but somehow Indiana had made it back to this series, back to the Heat, and the most combustible contender had its most fragile psyche sure of himself again, a foreboding problem for Miami.
"I just want to be the best Roy that I can be," Roy Hibbert said, and, yes, this changes everything for the Indiana Pacers. This changes everything.