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FiveThirtyEight

Heading into Wednesday night’s NBA playoff game against the Washington Wizards, the Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert had scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds in his past four games combined. For the better part of three weeks, his struggles had transformed him from a basketball player into a talking point. But Wednesday, Hibbert shredded the narrative, netting 28 points and nine rebounds to help even the series to 1-1.

It helped that the Pacers got him the ball. According to NBA.com’s SportVU Player Tracking Box Scores, Hibbert touched the ball 47 times on offense (including rebounds) in just over 33 minutes of game time, an average of 1.4 touches per minute. The Pacers averaged 1.8 possessions per minute, meaning Hibbert touched the ball on nearly every offensive possession when he was on the floor. That’s a huge difference from the level of offensive involvement he’s had over the rest of the regular season and playoffs.

hibbert

What we can’t know is whether the Pacers fed him the ball because Hibbert was playing well or whether that was the plan all along. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg question: Was Hibbert getting the ball because he was scoring, or was he scoring because the Pacers were getting him the ball?

It seems unlikely that Hibbert’s scoring barrage in Game 2 will become a trend; he’s scored more than 25 points just twice in his playoff career and just 16 times in 457 career games. But keeping him involved can pay dividends in other ways. Going back to the SportVU Player Tracking Box Scores, we see that Hibbert contested nine of the Wizards’ shot attempts at the rim, the most he’s contested in any game in these playoffs. In addition, 57 percent of the Pacers’ shot attempts in this game were uncontested by the Wizards, suggesting Hibbert’s success in the post was forcing the Wizards to leave shooters open elsewhere. That 57 percent figure is by far the highest percentage of open shots Indiana has seen during the playoffs. If we narrow the focus to the four Pacers starters besides Hibbert, the percentage of uncontested shots rises to 69 percent.

The Pacers don’t need Hibbert to score 28 points in every game to extend their playoff run. But they do need him to be engaged and active at both ends of the floor. Even when he’s not scoring, getting him touches helps bend the defense to open shots for others and gives him the confidence to do the dirty defensive work that is crucial to their success. Get that man the ball.

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