ATLANTA — Fairly or not, Roy Hibbert has become the symbol of all that's wrong with the Indiana Pacers.
He hopes to turn that around Saturday, no matter what his role.
The 7-foot-2 center has struggled mightily in the first three games against the Atlanta Hawks, raising the possibility of coming off the bench in Game 4. The top-seeded Pacers are down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series and must steal a win at Philips Arena to avoid a mammoth upset.
Coach Frank Vogel was tightlipped about his lineup plans. The Pacers have been more effective against the eighth-seeded Hawks with a smaller unit on the court — and Hibbert on the bench.
"You'll find out tomorrow," was all Vogel would say Friday, not long after a spirited film session at the team hotel.
Hibbert has scored only 18 points in the series on 7-of-25 shooting, and he looked downright lost in Atlanta's 98-85 win in Game 3. Several times, his shots were so far off the mark he didn't really seem to know where he was on the court. He also has struggled at the defensive end, lured out of his comfort zone near the basket by the outside shooting of center Pero Antic and forward Paul Millsap.
Atlanta's big men have put up a combined 26 shots from beyond the 3-point line, presenting all sorts of matchup problems for the lumbering Hibbert.
"It's a difficult lineup for me," Hibbert said. "I'm not used to it. It takes me out of position to protect the paint and to get rebounds in the paint and contest shots."
The Pacers have actually been more effective without a true center on the court, thanks to Luis Scola. The 6-foot-9 forward has scored 37 points in the last two games, giving the Hawks fits with his mid-range shooting.
Hibbert said he's going on the assumption that he'll be starting in Game 4, but he wants what's best for the team.
"I'll do whatever Coach feels is necessary to win," he said. "As far as I know, I'm still playing. I don't know if it will be with the second unit."
The Hawks hardly look like a team that finished six games below .500 during the regular season, playing with the swagger and confidence of a group that truly feels it can become only the sixth No. 8 seed to knock off the top seed in the opening round.
Atlanta lost its best player, center Al Horford, to a season-ending injury in December and went through a terrible two-month swoon as more guys went down. But now, except for Horford, the Hawks are as healthy as they've been all year — and it shows. They won seven of their last 10 to hold off New York for the final playoff spot in the East, and they've kept up their strong play against Indiana.
"We had a lot of injuries this year, so we're not you normal eight seed," said DeMarre Carroll, who had 18 points in Game 3. "If teams keep thinking we're your normal eight seed, we're going to keep proving that we're not your normal eight seed."
He'll get no argument from Hibbert, who most amazingly of all doesn't even have a block in the series after swatting away 182 shots during the regular season.
"We're trying to make it hard for him. We're trying to run him," Carroll said. "I think us running him makes him tired a lot, and that affects him at the offensive end. We've just got to keep playing our game. Paul and Pero have got to keep stretching him out."
While the Pacers will surely make some adjustments in the next game, especially when it comes to getting better movement away from the ball and not settling for so many jump shots, Vogel stressed that much of what needs to change doesn't show up on the stat sheet.
Quite simply, he wants to see more passion from the Pacers, who struggled over the final seven weeks of the regular season and seem to have wilted in the face of critics questioning whether they truly are one of the NBA's elite teams.
Hibbert isn't the only one who's struggling. George Hill made only 1-of-11 shots in Game 3. Paul George was held to 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting and questioned his team's toughness.
Asked a day later what he meant by that, George rattled off a long list of needed improvements. "We're just not attacking. We're hesitant. We're not assertive. We're not screening. We're not setting guys up. We're not finishing."
Vogel lit into his players during the extra-long film session, hoping to ignite a spark in a group that fashioned itself as a championship contender but is just two losses away from an early summer.
"We need to play with more passion, more energy, more heart and more guts," Vogel said. "That's what we've got to do."