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INDIANAPOLIS — First came the max contract. Then came the slump.
Then came the post-All-Star break burst — and then came the playoff breakout.
Roy Hibbert remembers all of it well.
And so it was with that in mind that the Indiana Pacers’ center approached the offseason, making sure he picks up exactly where he left off: as a dominant force at both ends of the floor.
Night in, night out.
“I’ve been putting on a lot of muscle. I put my nose to the grindstone during the summer and was just lifting, heavy on the legs and upper body, and hopefully it will pay off this year,” said Hibbert, who reported to training camp last week sporting a noticeably bulkier physique that doesn’t look to impair the mobility of the big man.
Listed at 260 pounds a year ago, the 7-foot-2, sixth-year veteran added 30 more during the offseason, with the dual objective of not being outmuscled while more effectively throwing his muscle around — just like he did after last year’s All-Star break, when he was arguably the best big man in the NBA.
Terrific the second half of the season and brilliant in the playoffs, Hibbert is confident the added size will allow him to avoid the slow start that dogged him after signing a four-year, $58 million contract following an All-Star nod in 2012.
“To tell you the truth, I just want to step up to the challenge and be able to play consistently like that throughout the whole year,” said Hibbert, who averaged a double-double during the postseason. “It’s in my mind, and I’m going to mentally prepare for that.
“I think just the added size is going to help me not get pushed around on the block and be able to impose my will a little bit more.”
Hibbert imposed his will throughout the 2013 playoffs, averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots and shooting 51 percent from the field through 19 games.
The numbers were, apart from blocks, in stark contrast to his regular-season averages of 11.9 points, 2.6 blocks, 8.3 rebounds and 44 percent field-goal shooting.
Although his defense was never questioned, Hibbert’s early season offensive problems were a constant source of criticism, particularly after signing a wealthy extension. The struggles were magnified by the absence of six-time scoring leader Danny Granger, whose season-ending knee injury created a void the Pacers tried to fill collectively.
By the time Hibbert found offensive groove after the All-Star break, the Pacers had in fact filled the void collectively. But in one way, his return to offensive relevance couldn’t have been better in that it was just in time for Indiana’s push to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Hibbert’s dominant presence nearly carried the Pacers to an upset of the Miami Heat, who wound up taking the series in seven games before claiming their second straight NBA championship.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel sees no reason why Hibbert can’t — or won’t — pick up where he left off.
“We expect him to play at the level he was at in the playoffs,” Vogel said. “We expect all of our guys to play their highest level. His numbers are not going to be as high as they were in the playoffs when he was playing 38, 40 minutes in some of those later series, because we don’t want to play him 40 minutes in the regular season.
“Everything we do offensively is about efficiency, and whatever minutes you end up up playing, just be as efficient as possible in those minutes.”
Early offensive woes notwithstanding, frontcourt teammate David West had no complaints about Hibbert’s performance last season. Yet he expects bigger and better things from a bigger, highly driven Hibbert.
“He’s gotten stronger, which is key. Size doesn’t necessarily equate to strength, but I know he’s gotten stronger,” West said. “He’s motivated, as well. From my standpoint, Roy did his job last year. He anchored our defense. He anchored us throughout the season. Even when he was struggling offensively, he still was able to be a presence. We wouldn’t have won the games that we won without him being on the floor.
“Just speaking with him the last couple of days, he’s just ready to get back to work, ready to be himself and be a part of this group.”
Although Hibbert plans to be himself, he grudgingly acknowledges the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah is the standard by which today’s centers are measured.
“I want to be the best. Joakim’s right up there. I don’t like him, but I’ve got a lot of respect for him, just the way he goes about his business,” Hibbert said. “He’s a tremendous player. He shows heart. He has a lot of heart and plays with a lot of passion. Despite how I feel about him off the court, on the court he’s a tremendous player.
“You have to respect him, because he brings it every night.”
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