Hibbert sighting in downtown Indy

After bounce-back Game 2, has much-maligned big man rediscovered his game?

Originally Published: May 7, 2014
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's as if the Indiana Pacers have been walking a tightrope for the past two months, teetering every few steps as the crowd has swelled waiting for the final tragedy.

It could very well happen, the plunge and the fallout from it, and some have confidently predicted it is only a matter of time. There is, however, another resolution that exists. What happens if the Pacers make it to the other side?

The burdensome transition from potential to expectation -- the surly days of being overlooked and underpaid have been replaced with huge checks, magazine covers and fierce criticism -- will end at some point. Either they will be finished or they will have developed a callus that will act as the invaluable shield that championship teams develop.

Where Roy Hibbert is on that continuum is hard to judge. But his fantastic Game 2 on Wednesday, an 86-82 Pacers victory to even their series with the Washington Wizards, was the steadiest step he's taken in weeks. It gave the Pacers renewed hope they can find solid ground again, but only the next step will tell for sure.

[+] EnlargeRoy Hibbert
AP Photo/Darron CummingsRoy Hibbert, a nonfactor for much of the playoffs, poured in a season-high 28 points in Game 2.

When Hibbert is standing tall and feeling confident, like in last postseason's Eastern Conference finals and the first three months or so of this season, the Pacers are certified legit. When he's slouching and invisible, they can often resemble a quivering mess.

Paul George might be the franchise, but Hibbert is the mood ring. And with the Pacers, mood can often be everything. They are an extremely fragile team emotionally, which is saying something, because postseason basketball is fragile by nature.

This is why there was an organization-wide effort to nurture Hibbert back to health over the two days between Game 1, defined by his goose egg in the points and rebounds columns, and a hugely important Game 2.

Coach Frank Vogel called him into his office for an hour-long pep talk. George took him out on his boat bass fishing on Geist Reservoir outside the city.

David West pulled him into a corner.

Hibbert's college coach, John Thompson III, flew in from Washington D.C. with agent David Falk and sat in the first row near the Pacers bench.

The organization even symbolically said goodbye to Andrew Bynum, an experiment long since left for dead but perhaps just one percent on Hibbert's mind, officially casting Bynum off eight hours before game time.

Maybe all of that helped uplift the sensitive big man and lead directly to his best game of the season, scoring 28 points with nine rebounds on 10-of-13 shooting.

Or maybe it was the fact that he made a basket on the first possession of the game, the jumper creating a huge roar from the crowd that clearly was a stress reliever. More likely it was Hibbert's almost angry attempts at demanding the ball, posting up Wizards big men Nene and Marcin Gortat and forcing them way deeper than the scouting report demanded.

In a defining moment just a handful of possessions into the game, Lance Stephenson -- the most obvious culprit of Hibbert's infamous "selfish" comment from late in the regular season -- was about to get a pick from West. Normally, Stephenson would not turn down a chance to get freed up for a drive; he loves to be the focal point.

But he waved West away and nodded toward Hibbert, who was planted inside.

The ball went in, and Hibbert got fouled. He had eight free throws Wednesday, the same amount he'd had for the entire postseason up until Game 2.

"My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball in my sweet spot and believing in me," Hibbert said. "I wanted to return the favor."

It has been open season on Hibbert recently. He's been lambasted by the media for his scoreless games. He's been mocked on social media by retired peers like Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady -- two players that own a less stellar playoff record than Hibbert already does. Mystified by his sudden drop-off, the public filled the void as rumors with varying levels of absurdity popped up.

"Everybody has been piling on the big fella," West said. "Everyone in this locker room has been trying to encourage him and keep him lifted and keep his spirits high. As a pro athlete, sometimes you're going to struggle, regardless of what is going on. He didn't say too much to us over the last two days. I thought he responded the right way."

One of the things West has been saying to Hibbert is the well-known NBA parable about being rescued from drowning. Ironically for the Pacers, this entered the league's lexicon from the many stories told by rival Pat Riley and stems from the instructions on a whitewater rafting trip he once went on. "Be an active participant in your own rescue" is how it goes. Don't just wait for the lifeline. Fight to get to it.

Perhaps that's one of the things Hibbert thought about on the water with George on Tuesday evening.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself to get going," Hibbert said. "I feel I was making a lot of excuses over the second half of the season. I decided to take it into my own hands."

The Pacers are still in a major fight in this series. The Wizards had numerous things going against them and still almost pulled it out. They were ahead in the fourth quarter and were a defensive stop or two away from going up 2-0 in the series.

Among the things not expected to be seen again this series: The Pacers had only eight turnovers, the Wizards only had one fast-break point and Washington shot a miserable 5-of-21 from 3-point range in a major comedown from their 10-of-16 performance in Game 1.

It's hard to see this type of game playing out again. What has the possibility to sustain, though, is Hibbert. He's one giant variable in this series.

Perhaps this was the start of a new consciousness by which he'll rediscover the form that was so vital in making the Pacers the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. Or perhaps not.

"I'm just going to try to control the things I can control," Hibbert said. "Consistency hasn't been my biggest friend this year."

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