When Frank Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien midway through the 2010-2011 season, he understood an undeniable truth: the Pacers badly needed Roy Hibbert. As an assistant, Vogel cultivated a strong relationship with the big man. It was Vogel who convinced Hibbert to adopt a vertical defense, to forgo blocks and charges in favor of creating an eight-foot wall of humanity opponents would have to shoot over. Vogel worked tirelessly to develop that part of Hibbert's game, creating drills that would eventually turn Hibbert into an elite defender.
As head coach, Vogel zeroed in on Hibbert's offense. Under O'Brien, Hibbert was moved between the high and low post. He chafed under O'Brien's stern coaching style. His confidence ebbed and flowed. For Vogel, the first step in rehabilitating Hibbert was simplifying the system. You are a low post player, Vogel told Hibbert. Establish deep position and we will get you the ball. It worked: Hibbert's shooting percentage jumped three points after the All-Star break and the Pacers surged to a 20-18 finish. Over three-plus years under Vogel, Hibbert has developed into a two-time All-Star and one of the NBA's best centers.
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But those days are gone, a memory buried underneath an avalanche of inexplicably poor performances. Hibbert averaged a meager 5.3 points -- on a stunning 23.5 percent shooting -- during the last two weeks of the regular season. He scored 14 points on 16 attempts in the first two games of the series against the Hawks. And then, on Thursday: four points (on 2-of-9 shooting) and two rebounds in the Pacers' 98-85 Game 3 defeat, dropping Indy into a 2-1 hole.
The Hibbert who once powered into the lane for short hooks tossed up fallaway jump shots. The 7-foot-2 Hibbert who would have scoffed at 6-8 Paul Millsap's attempts to defend him was routinely pushed off his spot. Point blank looks led to missed layups, passes in the paint were fumbled away. Hibbert played the first 6 ½ minutes of the third quarter on Wednesday before being banished to the bench the rest of the night.
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Teammates who had watched Hibbert grow, who had once lavished him with praise were at a loss to explain his sudden decline.
"I don't know," said David West after Game 3. "We have all tried to talk to him, keep him confident. It's hurting him. He wants to help us. He wants to play well. He is hard on himself. We have to figure out a way to get him involved. He has to figure out a way to get himself involved. The biggest thing for us is to keep him confident, [to] let him know we still trust him."
Hibbert has become the face of Indiana's late season struggles, a crumbling equally swift and hard to explain. Theories abound. Some attribute the free fall to the trade of Danny Granger. Granger was a shell of the 2009 All-Star this season. Knee injuries robbed him of his explosiveness, reducing him to a mediocre jump shooter. Swapping Granger for Evan Turner -- a younger, more athletic scorer -- looked good on paper but it's impossible to measure the impact of removing Granger from a locker room he was once the center of. Indiana was 15-13 after the Granger trade with a negative point differential (-2.2) and an offense that averaged nearly five fewer points per game. Others cite the departure of Brian Shaw, the respected assistant who played a key role in the development of Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson.
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Vogel is naturally under fire for Indiana's woes, but pinning this mess on him is too simplistic. The Turner trade backfired and the front office never addressed the team's problems at point guard, where George Hill is routinely overmatched. The smash mouth identity Vogel created is less effective when perimeter players aren't perimeter threats.
Indiana needs Vogel, needs him to tap into his relationship with Hibbert and help the fragile big man rediscover his game. Vogel was asked repeatedly on Thursday if he would sit Hibbert and would only offer strong support. "I have confidence in Roy Hibbert," Vogel said. "I do have that. He hasn't played well in this series to this point. But I have great confidence in him. We're not going to quit on him. We'll keep working with him. We'll keep trying to figure it out."
Vogel said Hibbert would "probably" start Game 4 on Saturday, though if he does he will undoubtedly be on a short leash. One by one the Pacers offered up the right sentiments on Thursday -- "It's still a long series," said George; "We just have to split down here," added Hill -- but ashen faces gave them away. A team that began the season with such resolve is facing a crisis of confidence. A season with such promise is quickly slipping away.