The Surprise Return Of Roy Hibbert

The strange story that is the Indiana Pacers season and postseason has taken yet another twist. Just when it was safe to write off the Pacers, after a poor finish to regular season, a shaky first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks and a Game 1 loss at home to the Washington Wizards to start the second round, suddenly the Pacers are back again. And it’s no coincidence that their resurgence has run parallel with that of Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert hit rock bottom in the first game of the Wizards’ series, with no points and no rebounds. Then Indiana made the decision to cut temperamental insurance policy Andrew Bynum, Hibbert went out fishing with couple teammates and suddenly the old Roy is back.

In a must-win Game 2, Hibbert had 28 points and 9 rebounds. The series went to Washington D.C., with the Pacers still needing to reclaim homecourt advantage. While he wasn’t dominant, he was solid, averaging 15.5 points and 7 rebounds as his team won both games in the nation’s capital and put a stranglehold on this series.

When Roy Hibbert is playing well, he is that rarest of breeds in the modern basketball landscape—a true center, who can play with his back to the basket on offense, and be shotblocking force on defense, one that affects a game and deters an opponent from attacking the rim. Hibbert was the one element the Miami Heat—and most of the rest of the NBA—couldn’t match up with. When he plays like this, the Pacers are a threat to win the NBA championship. When he disappears, Indiana is a borderline playoff team at best.

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Thus, Hibbert’s last three games bring to mind two questions. The first one is this—just how big a poison is Andrew Bynum anyway? The center had a lousy reputation with the Los Angeles Lakers, and it got worse after tours with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, were he made an absolute joke of himself. Bynum wasn’t even playing with the Pacers, he was just on streetclothes by the bench. Is he such a cancerous presence that simply taking him away re-energized Hibbert?

I won’t say I was ever a Bynum fan, but he had been a starter on two Laker championship teams, in 2009 and 2010. I felt that whatever his personal issues, a team could clearly integrate him into the lineup and be successful. In a conversation with a friend last night, I was reminded of one basic fact that I overlooked—the man who integrated him into this championship teams was Phil Jackson. Any other coach couldn’t deal with it.

The second, and more pertinent question is this—are the Indiana Pacers back as a legitimate challenger to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, presuming both teams close out their business in this round? Let’s not forget, it’s the Pacers who still have the #1 seed and homecourt advantage. Miami’s efforts to find a center that can match up with Hibbert haven’t really worked. And while the Heat have the best player in the world in LeBron James, they don’t have great depth throughout their lineup.

There was a time when the entire basketball world—whether they actually picked the Pacers, as I did in the preseason, or not, acknowledged that Indiana-Miami would be an epic battle. Do we reset to our original assumptions now?

I’d like to think so, but Indiana’s collapse was so unprecedented that I’m feeling a little gunshy. I want to see this team close out Washington at home tomorrow night, and I want to see if Miami can close out the Brooklyn Nets in five games to get a read on where the Heat are at. Whatever the case though, the Pacers at least put themselves back on everyone’s radar these past few days in D.C., thanks to the work of Roy Hibbert.