AS SUNDAY night turned to Monday morning in Washington, D.C., reporters and cameramen swarmed center Roy Hibbert's locker with the intensity of a thirsty crowd at last call. For two months Hibbert has been the most popular Pacer, but for all the wrong reasons: a mysterious plummet from All-Star in February to 5.3-points-a-game scorer in April to cringe-worthy liability in a narrow first-round escape against the eighth-seeded Hawks. He has been called basketball's Chuck Knoblauch, been ridiculed on social media and endured rampant, unsubstantiated speculation about his personal life. Then in Game 4 against the Wizards, Hibbert played like his old effective self—at least half the time—presenting yet another puzzling turn for the 7'2" Rubik's Cube of the playoffs.
At the end of the second quarter at the Verizon Center, Indiana trailed by 17, with Hibbert contributing all of one basket and two rebounds. But when Washington point guard John Wall careened into the paint, he got a faceful of Hibbert's jersey. When 6'11" center Marcin Gortat went to the rim, Hibbert stood sentry and swatted his shots. Behind his nine points and seven rebounds in the third quarter, the Pacers whittled the lead to one, then surged for a 95--92 win and a commanding 3--1 series advantage.
Sitting in front of his locker, dress shirt untucked, legs splayed, Hibbert looked relaxed. Over the last three games—all Indiana victories—he had averaged 19.7 points and 7.7 rebounds, a brain-frying departure from his Game 1 double nada (no points, no boards). Forward Paul George could only shake his head when asked about Hibbert's turnaround. "It's been tough to watch what he has been going through," says George. "Constantly getting his name bashed in the media, rumors coming out. There was so much stuff building up. I don't know how he got through it. I'm not sure I could have. But he did."
HIBBERT WASN'T born with confidence; he needed to build it along the way. He arrived at Georgetown in the fall of 2004 as a 272-pound lumbering big man who "didn't really have an idea of what he was going to do when he had the ball," says the coach who recruited him, Craig Esherick. Four years later, Hibbert was a second-team All-America and a first-round NBA draft pick. In Indiana, Hibbert struggled early under the stern hand of Jim O'Brien, who set him up in ever-changing spots on the floor. Enter Frank Vogel, O'Brien's replacement in January 2011, who stuffed Hibbert in the low post, showed him how to avoid fouls by staying vertical on defense and showered him with praise. The results: Hibbert developed into a physical offensive presence and an elite interior defender.
Yet in early March, Hibbert's confidence began to erode. He had just two points in 19 minutes against the Jazz, then three points against the Bulls a few weeks later. Theories about Hibbert's struggles ranged from the threat to his minutes posed by the Pacers' signing of center Andrew Bynum on Feb. 1 to the locker-room void created when veteran Danny Granger was traded on Feb. 20. Hibbert, though, thinks his problems were internal. "I just started getting too passive," he says. "The team was doing well, and I started to lose my focus."
The same could be said for several Pacers; George, shooting guard Lance Stephenson, forward David West and point guard George Hill all had dips in production after the All-Star break. After starting 33--7 the Pacers stumbled to a 15--13 finish. "As a team we didn't handle success the greatest," says West. "We lost some games because of that."
Around the same time Hibbert's struggles began, the NBA was buzzing with chatter that Paul George was having an affair with Hibbert's fiancée. On May 5, a gossip website published an email—with the disclaimer that the contents could not be confirmed—from a "source" claiming to verify the rumor. On May 6, the day before Game 2 against the Wizards, George posted a picture on Instagram of himself, Hibbert and Hill on the deck of George's new 22-foot Nitro fishing boat. Above it, George wrote: These rumors have got to stop! Its gettin old now and all you that believe them are ignorant! #Brothers.
"I was getting annoyed with all the dumb and ignorant stories that were coming out," says George. "I knew it was getting to some of our guys. Someone needed to stand up. I wanted to let them know that I had their back." Hibbert declined to address the rumor directly. As for the fishing trip, he would only say, "It helped me get focused for basketball." He received reassurance from his college coach, John Thompson III, who reminded Hibbert to keep his legs bent to establish position on offense, and from West, Indiana's elder statesman, who told him to stay under control and let the game come to him. "I try to keep him encouraged," says West. "For us to be at our best, he has to perform."
Benching Hibbert was never an option. "It's rare that you have a five-man unit that has proven that they are one of the most efficient and that they can go on a deep playoff run," says Vogel. "Splitting it up would take away one of the things that is going really well for us."
There is a direct connection between Hibbert's effectiveness on offense and how well he does defensively. Consider: In Games 2 and 4, Hibbert contested 21 field goals, according to SportVU data. In Game 1 he didn't challenge a single shot. "His most important role is rebounding and deterring shots around the rim, where he is better than anyone in the NBA," says Vogel.
For Hibbert, a season once on the verge of catastrophe has become redeemable. Three games can't erase two ugly months, but Indiana believes their giant puzzle is getting closer to a solution. Everyone is still talking about Hibbert—for the right reasons.
"There was so much stuff building up," says George. "I don't know how he got through it."
Photograph by Simon Bruty Sports Illustrated
ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES
GOSSIP GUYS Unfounded rumors of a rift between Hibbert (55) and George dominated coverage of the team this spring.