Roy Hibbert, Pacers hitting stride at perfect time

The Vertical
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time in his NBA playoff career, Roy Hibbert had been invited to the interview podium. After the best performance of his postseason life, Hibbert had showered, dressed and awaited word now on making the short walk down the corridor.

Before he left his corner stall, his eyes darted around the Indiana Pacers locker room. There was something he wanted to tell his teammates. He cleared his throat and made sure the franchise's most gentle voice could be heard over the clutter of conversations.

"Enjoy Mother's Day," Hibbert blurted out.

Here was the 7-foot-2 franchise center of these Pacers, towering over the room, the night, and this Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series – reaffirming his wishes with a nod and a smile. Roy Hibbert was serious. Enjoy Mother's Day, fellas. He cares deeply for his teammates, nurtures the room, and yet sometimes one of his greatest blessings as man can be a crippling curse as a basketball player.

Long before his 24 points and 12 rebounds in the Pacers' 82-71 victory over the Knicks on Saturday night, before the Pacers had taken a 2-1 series lead, Hibbert had been desperately searching for solutions to a season that had gone awry for months. His offensive game had become discombobulated, his footwork frenzied, his shot scared, his belief shaken to the core. Part of the problem had been a nagging wrist injury, and part had been the burden of a freshly minted four-year, $58 million contract.

"Roy's very engaging," Pacers forward David West told Yahoo! Sports on Saturday night. "He wants to know what's going on with everybody and everything. He wants the team to have this flow about itself, where everybody is communicating to one another; where everyone is pulling for one another; where everyone is involved in the highs and lows together."

"When he was struggling, that was most evident to me: He was looking for guys to give him…stuff. 'Tell me what I'm doing wrong, tell me what you think..' He was reaching out to just about everybody – almost to a fault.

"You'd tell him, "Roy, it's not that serious. You're going to be all right.'"

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Most of all, West would tell him: Stop apologizing. West is one of the great leaders in the NBA, the perfect infusion of physical and mental strength brought into these Pacers two years ago. Like Hibbert, West is a deep thinker, an owner of intellectual curiosity far beyond the court. Unlike Hibbert, West never suffers a crisis of confidence on the court.

As Hibbert struggled, West was forever monitoring the insecurities within his teammate. What always made West believe that Hibbert would find a way to re-engage that dominant defense with his offense again was the way that Hibbert never stopped grinding.

"He's a worker," West said. "He never stopped. He's shooting. He's lifting weights. He's taking criticism. He was mature about it. He wasn't in denial about his play. He wasn't looking to blame the offense, the plays we were running. He took it square in the chest."

Sometimes, it felt like something had drained the air out of him. Hibbert had used the threat of signing an offer sheet with the Portland Trail Blazers to extract a maximum deal out of the Pacers. Perhaps he wondered himself: Am I worth it? The market said so, but Hibbert had never expected to become an NBA All-Star. He was a tall, loved basketball player, but the game never came easy to him.

In so many ways, he's the ultimate self-made NBA All-Star – a goofy, gangly 7-footer who hardly arrived at Georgetown as the next Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning. Before he could learn to play center, coach John Thompson III sent him to the track with a running coach to teach him how to run.

HIbbert is a throwback in the NBA now, a low-post scorer threatening defenses with those lefty and righty jump hooks. He's forever anchored the Pacers defense, but they're dramatically different when they can throw the ball into him on offense.

He changes everything for the Pacers, and he's the best reason why these Pacers are within two victories of the conference finals.

"This was his best playoff game – ever," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "He's oozing with confidence."

Everyone could see it on Saturday night, including the Knicks. When he's playing well, owning the inside, these Pacers are a threat to everyone in the Eastern Conference. He's carrying himself like a max-out center ought to, the way his talent demands. No more apologizing, no more desperation. Hibbert's no longer the burdened 7-footer trying to explain himself to his teammates, trying to justify that $58 million contract.

After his news conference on Saturday night, he marched back through the Pacers locker room, and started back out to the parking lot. As he walked out the door, he turned back once more and made sure everyone heard him this time, yelling "Enjoy Mother's Day."

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As David West insisted, Roy Hibbert needs to know the flow of his locker room, needs to feel invested every day within it. It had been merely a matter of time until the room would feel right again to him, until the return of his dominant play would buoy these Pacers again.

Suddenly, everything felt right for Hibbert and the Pacers again, because he was himself again. No more canvassing the locker room to solicit solutions for his struggles, no more anxiety creeping into everyone about whether the 7-foot max-out center would find his game again. Relax, Roy. These are the playoffs, and he's a force again. Roy Hibbert's right on time.

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