Theories are flying fast at slumping Roy Hibbert and the Pacers, like so many zeros in his box score. How in the name of David Copperfield has an All-Star center and top-seeded team vaporized so quickly and spectacularly?
These are questions you're asking, I'm asking and, most definitely, team president Larry Bird is asking here in the second round of the NBA playoffs, where the Pacers and their beleaguered Big Guy are feeling foul and also smelling it. They've been trapped in a three-month fog now, unable to convince anyone that it's merely a phase. The evidence says the Pacers' swoon isn't a mirage, that it's now who they are and will prevent them from reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
Hold up. Didn't we take that for granted back on Jan. 20 when they were 33-7? Didn't the Pacers, too? Indiana vs. Miami was supposed to be a sure thing, lock city, right?
Well, that was soooo long ago, to the point where now, if the Pacers do erase the Wizards and Hibbert does grab five rebounds (and we're being kind) in a single game from here, it would come as a surprise. What happened? When did it happen? How did it happen? And is there anything the Pacers can do to keep it from happening?
Let's begin with Hibbert, who in the last week has two games without a point or rebound. According to Elias, that's a first for a starting center since these numbers were charted in 1970. Hibbert hasn't had a double-digit rebound game since March 21 and has scored in double figures only once in the playoffs. His performance lately has been historic, in a negative sense. Folks are wondering and asking whether any player has ever gone from being an All-Star to a complete flop to playoff liability in the same season. Does the NBA keep records for this sort of thing?
It's hard to recall anyone dropping so far off the map that a GPS can't even locate him, but two semi-relatable examples happened just recently, actually. Manu Ginobili was a bust last year in the NBA Finals, reaching rock bottom with eight turnovers in the Ray Allen Game 6, although Ginobili wasn't an All-Star and he did produce a 24-point, 10-assist performance that gave the Spurs a 3-2 series lead.
Also, who could forget how the great LeBron James turned chilly and choke-y in the 2011 Finals against the Mavericks, when he couldn't make a shot of any magnitude and turned to sawdust with each passing game?
The difference is Hibbert's issues are two months old, not two weeks, not two games. He hasn't been the same since taking a flagrant LeBron elbow to the jaw on March 26. Hibbert had 17 of his 21 points in the first half of that win. He hasn't scored 17 points in any game since. In March, he averaged 9.7 points and 4.6 rebounds. In April, those averages were 5.3 and 3.2. Through one game of the second round, those playoff averages are 4.6 and 3.3. He's so far south, he can touch Key West.
Hibbert was trolled by Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady after his zero-zero stat line in Game 1 against the Wizards. He has become an Internet punching bag. His teammates, unhappy with Hibbert for weeks, are now letting their dissatisfaction spill into the public. David West almost bit through his lip when asked about Hibbert, finally saying what all the Pacers are feeling: "He's got to be part of the fight."
Maybe we're looking at his troubles from the wrong angle. The collapse of Hibbert seems steep because of where he was in February: All-Star. Well, maybe he wasn't an All-Star in the truest sense. The East was weak this season and decent big men are scarce anyway, so Hibbert's appointment was mostly by default. And while he did play terrific defense from November through February, coinciding with the Pacers' rise as a title contender, the rest of Hibbert's game has always been rather mild at best. He's just a crude, raw offensive player who doesn't get his number called. Hibbert has never shot 50 percent or better in a season, which is shocking for someone 7-foot-2. He's a 6.7 rebounder for his career, which, again, is soft for a center who's usually the biggest guy on the court.
Hibbert's physical makeup doesn't make it easy for him. There's something in his nervous system that screams, to hell with this. He's slow-footed in the post, often out of position for rebounds and layups, doesn't instinctively attack the rim for stray shots and lacks a polished go-to move. He blocks shots. That's his ace card.
The real starting point for the decline of Hibbert is last year around this time when he was often the Pacers' best player on the floor. He averaged 17 points, 9.9 rebounds and almost two blocks in the 2013 playoffs. He was -- and this sounds insane right now -- a force at times. He destroyed the Knicks in Round 2, and his stuff of a Carmelo Anthony dunk was YouTube worthy. If you want to know why Hibbert looks so weak now, start with that Roy Hibbert. He's fighting that ghost, and it's a losing battle.
"I've got to come out and be aggressive," Hibbert said. "I've got to be a different Roy Hibbert than I have been."
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Obviously, the Pacers' problems go deeper than their center:
Scoring. They've cracked 100 points only once in the playoffs, and every offensive possession looks and feels like a dental visit. The Pacers lack imagination and too often lapse into one-on-one basketball, mainly out of panic if not necessity. When Lance Stephenson puts his head down and goes into his dribble game, looking to shake his man, that's a sure sign of a team desperate for a system.
Plenty can be blamed on George Hill, who might be the least productive starting point guard left in the playoffs. OK, maybe it's Mario Chalmers, but Chalmers lets LeBron dictate the flow. Hill has the ball in his hands when the Pacers cross midcourt. He rarely breaks down a defense and finds the open man. It's just not his style. He's averaging 3.6 assists in the playoffs, which is third on his team! Too often, Hill lets Stephenson or Paul George do what he's supposed to be doing. If the Pacers had a creative, pass-first point guard who involved his teammates and made them better, maybe Hibbert could get easier looks at the basket.
Bench. In a word, it's been dreadful. Bird made two decisions that looked good at the time but soon backfired on him. He traded Danny Granger for Evan Turner at the deadline because Granger was clearly on empty. However, Granger had major locker room clout, which would come in handy right now because the Pacers could use another veteran's voice beside West's. And Turner, who's playing for a contract, has been awful and a bad fit. When Hibbert made his infamous "selfish dudes" comment a month ago, many believe he was singling out Turner, who lost his spot in the rotation last week.
The other decision was getting Luis Scola last summer. Bird wanted to spruce up the front line and add scoring punch to offset Hibbert. But to get Scola, he traded Miles Plumlee, who hustled 7.8 rebounds in 24 minutes a game for the Suns this season. And packaged in that deal was Gerald Green, the NBA discovery of the year, who averaged 15.8 points and collected Most Improved Player votes by the bushel. Wouldn't coach Frank Vogel, as he scrambles to find combinations, prefer to have Plumlee/Green right now instead of Scola/Turner?
Perimeter defense. It's a mystery how a team with long-limbed, athletic wing players -- Hill, George, Stephenson -- can't lock down shooters. It must drive Bird and Vogel nuts. In the first round the Hawks exploited the Pacers by taking an NBA record number of three-pointers in a playoff series, and lost Game 7 only because they finally ran out of steam, making 11 of 44 threes. You can understand; their arms were dead.
When the Wizards made a more economical and efficient 10 of 16 threes in Game 1, with Trevor Ariza perfect in six tries, Hawks guard Jeff Teague tweeted how Atlanta laid "the blueprint" on how to beat the Pacers.
There's an urge to throw Vogel onto the pile, except what's he to do? His biggest crime is being loyal to Hibbert, but Vogel knows if he pulls the plug on Hibbert, he loses Hibbert for good. Although, if this keeps up, Vogel may not have a choice.
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The Pacers made a season-long pledge to get home-court advantage in the East and their knees buckled from the burden of that. When they became the hunted instead of the hunters, they couldn't handle the view from the top, which gave them vertigo. They've lost three times at home in the playoffs and surrendered rather easily each time. Their mojo was lost months ago, and their biggest enemy can't be beaten by a jumper or a rebound, because that enemy lives between the ears.
The Pacers will either die a quick playoff death or once again find a way to survive. The more you see of them, the more you're tempted to warm up the hearse and call the priest.