He is 7-foot-2, weighs 280 pounds and still growing at age 26. Yes, right before our disbelieving eyes, and much to the disappointment of the Knicks, Roy Hibbert is slowly yet surely expanding and threatening to pop New York's conference championship dreams. The tallest guy on the floor, once considered the stiffest, is finally noticing his ceiling and how high it looks.
In fact, Hibbert's game is swelling all around. He's getting the ball and doing something productive with it, instead of treating it like a live grenade, like he used to. He's getting looks from his teammates and showing the desire to score. Hibbert is becoming a threat on offense, and if this keeps up, is there any stopping him and the Pacers in this series?
The short and easy answer is no, there isn't. The Knicks are scrambling right now, trying to figure out a problem they didn't see coming, other than Carmelo Anthony's selfish desires. Hibbert is chopping up Tyson Chandler, who was just named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team -- eating him alive, basically, along with Kenyon Martin and the reinforcements. As a result, the Pacers have a low-post option now. And a good chance of moving to the East finals.
"There are certain things I know I can do pretty well and things I can improve upon," Hibbert said. "You can always get better. It's never too late for that."
Hibbert is the MVP so far in a series that will fall heavily in Indiana's favor with a Game 4 victory Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He dropped 24 points (with 12 rebounds, eight offensive) in Game 3. He's averaging 18 points in the playoffs. But the impressive part is how Hibbert is getting those buckets. They're not just on put-backs, which was virtually his entire offensive game until this recent turnaround. He's putting the ball on the floor, taking one dribble, sometimes two, and making a move without tripping over his size 18s. He's getting deep position and catching the ball. He's starting to shoot closer to the rim and showing a gentle touch.
"Around the basket I wanted to be more active," he said. "I wanted to help our offense out and also be there defensively, as always."
Is this really the center whose career scoring average is only 11.3 and for much of his five years has been an opportunity scorer (meaning the ball only found him by mistake)? Is this a tease or really the breakout stretch for a big man who was cursed with poor technique, terrible footwork and a hook shot that looked like a slingshot?
"He's just oozing with confidence," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel, and you can see that even through the lens of a monocle, which is what Hibbert wanted to wear Saturday at his first visit to the post-game podium before having second thoughts.
What we're seeing in these playoffs are big returns from big men. Centers are suddenly becoming one of the most important players on the floor. Not the best. Most important. And this is a surprise in a league with too many watered-down big men who are richly rewarded for being tall and one-dimensional (that would be DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee, among others, players who should watch what's happening right now with Hibbert and a few others and take notes).
Out West, after spending much of a turbulent season doing physical therapy, Andrew Bogut is finally producing big for the Warriors. He beat up the Nuggets in the first round after David Lee was done for the playoffs with a torn hip flexor, and is a handful for the Spurs, grabbing 18 rebounds Sunday to even that series. The Grizzlies are bringing the one-two inside combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, each averaging a double-double in the playoffs. And Joakim Noah is being a physical pest against the Heat, grabbing rebounds, defending the rim and as you read this, probably still clapping sarcastically in Chris Bosh's ear.
It's been a surprisingly long absence for the dominant big man lately in the championship mix. The NBA is being overtaken by super-talented 6-foot-8 types who do so much more. It's a league owned by LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul and, lately, Steph Curry. The last traditional big man to win MVP was Kevin Garnett in 2003-04. Some teams this season didn't even bother with the traditional lineup of using a starting center. When Garnett is starting at the All-Star Game at age 36, isn't something seriously wrong?
Hibbert lasted until the 17th pick in 2008 because there were warning signs about his skills coming out of Georgetown. He was slow and clumsy. His mechanics and fundamentals were raw and unrefined. He was big and had good defensive instincts, but needed lots of work. And there were questions about how badly he wanted to be a star versus a functional big man who'd rather make a nice living, nothing more.
The fears were legit because Hibbert was all of the above for much of his career. He still hasn't shot 50 percent for a season, which is amazingly poor for someone who doesn't live on the perimeter. And he doesn't exactly beat a path to the free throw line. Hibbert averages just 2.9 free throw attempts a game. Dwight Howard takes 9.3 (although he takes them badly). Hibbert doesn't know how to draw contact or use his body wisely. That's largely because, until lately, most of Hibbert's shots were jump-hooks taken from just outside the paint, a low-percentage option for a seven-footer.
But when Hibbert became a restricted free agent last summer and got a four-year, $58 million offer from the Blazers, the Pacers had to match, even if it seemed like a classic big-man overpay at the time. Where else could they find a center who could at least protect the rim? They gambled that his rebounding (8.4 the last two seasons) and offense would come around and he'd become more of a complete player.
How'd that turn out? Well, by the end of March, just two months ago, he was shooting 43 percent. And he didn't repeat as an All-Star. Fans howled and Pacers executives squirmed.
Something clicked in his last 10 games of the season, though. Hibbert became active and aggressive. He scored 28 points against the Rockets, 26 against the Clippers, 22 against OKC and 25 against the Wizards. In the series-clinching game against the Hawks in the first round, Hibbert shot 14 free throws. The Pacers began feeding him the ball. Even better, he began to demand it.
"He worked his way through it," said Pacers forward David West. "He doesn't want to settle. He wants to maximize everything in his ability."
When he's that active, it changes everything about the Pacers. Now it's a whole new game for them -- and for him.
"He's playing well at both ends, and that's what we need," said Vogel.
Yes, it's possible for a big man to get even bigger.