INDIANAPOLIS — Big Roy Hibbert came up with a big answer for his critics and his teammates Wednesday night.
After 48 hours of questions and criticism, Hibbert scored a season-high 28 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked two shots and altered a handful of others to help the Pacers get even in the Eastern Conference semifinals with an 86-82 victory over Washington.
Hibbert sounded more relieved than redeemed.
“David (West) always talks to me about being the person that rescues yourself when you’re in the middle of the ocean,” Hibbert said after Indiana tied the best-of-seven series at 1-1. “There’s nobody who can throw a lifesaver or a rope out to help you. So I had to do it myself.”
The next step is proving he can play this way again Friday when Washington hosts Game 3.
Hibbert went into Wednesday with a combined total of 37 points and 24 rebounds in Indiana’s first eight playoff games. Twice in the previous four he failed to score a point or grab a rebound.
Beleaguered Pacers fans wanted Hibbert benched. Frustrated teammates talked publicly and privately about needing more from their 7-foot-2 center. Critics turned Hibbert into the butt of jokes and on the Internet, some even tried to explain Hibbert’s incredible disappearing act with unseemly speculation.
After talking to his old college coach, John Thompson III, and Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, a close friend, Hibbert blocked out the inescapable firestorm, focused on basketball and fueled the decisive 6-0 run late in the fourth quarter.
It was enough to put repeated smiles on Hibbert’s face, even if he considers it only a start.
“I just want to string a few games together,” he said. “Consistency hasn’t been my biggest friend this year. I’m going to try to continue to play aggressive and I’m going to try to control the things I can control. I can’t control play calls, but I can control how hard I play, how fast I run down the court and how well I play defense.”
George Hill finished with 14 points, Paul George had 11 points, six rebounds and four assists, and Lance Stephenson added 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists. And for the first time this postseason, the Pacers held an opponent to fewer than nine 3-pointers. Washington finished 5 of 21 from behind the arc, the lowest percentage (23.8) in the playoffs this year.
Much of the credit went to Hibbert, who helped open up the offensive lanes for his teammates and protected the rim well enough that Indiana could spread out and defend the perimeter.
“He’s got our attention now,” Drew Gooden said. “We’ve got to be focused on guarding the Roy Hibbert we know.”
It was a lost opportunity for the Wizards, who had won their first four playoff games on the road — three at Chicago and Monday night at Indy — and could have gone home with a commanding 2-0 lead.
They had chances.
Washington led by as much as six early in the third quarter and rallied in the fourth to take a 77-74 lead with 5:01 to go before Hibbert and George scored six straight to give the Pacers the lead for good.
Marcin Gortat finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Bradley Beal had 17 points and Nene added 14.
“He came out with a lot of intensity and established position,” Beal said. “We didn’t play our best game. We didn’t shoot the ball and we didn’t defend like we know we’re capable.”
But Hibbert changed this game almost by himself.
He scored the first five points of the game, an indication that things were going to be different, and he came up big late, too.
Hibbert’s nifty stop-and-go layup got the Pacers within 77-76. That basket ignited the decisive 6-0 spurt. George’s steal on the ensuing possession led to a layup from Hill that gave Indiana a 78-77 lead, and Hibbert’s presence in the middle allowed George to find a lane for a two-handed dunk that made it 80-77.
All the Wizards could muster after that was an alley-oop layup from Gortat and a long 3-pointer from Beal that got the Wizards within 84-82 with 11 seconds to play.
West made two free throws and Hibbert sealed it by grabbing the last rebound of the game.
“He carried us tonight,” West said. “I thought he was very relaxed before the game. He was relaxed this morning. He didn’t say a whole lot, but as a professional, I think everything just came down on him and he responded the right way.”
Notes: Hibbert was 10 of 13 from the field and made all eight of his free throw attempts…. Nene went to the locker room in the first quarter after apparently hurting his left leg or ankle but returned early in the second quarter and finished the game.
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