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Struggling Pacers center scores 28 in win against Wizards

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The Indiana Pacers are back in the fight. And guess who they have to thank?

Roy Hibbert.

Two days after teammate David West proclaimed that Hibbert had “to be part of the fight” for the Pacers to contend in the playoffs, the 7-2, 290-pound center delivered a figurative knockout punch Wednesday night against the Washington Wizards.

In what was easily his best game of the postseason and one of his best of the season, period, Hibbert had 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lift the host Pacers to an 86-82 win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

With the victory, top-seeded Indiana — which dropped Game 1 at home on Monday night — evened the best-of-seven series at 1-1. Games 3 and 4 are Friday and Sunday, respectively, at fifth-seeded Washington.

Hibbert, a liability in Game 1 — and a virtual non-factor thus far in the playoffs — was indispensable in Game 2.

After going scoreless in three of his past four games, including Monday night, the All-Star post player scored the Pacers’ first five points and only got better as the night progressed.

Displaying a confidence that has been lacking not only in the playoffs but for the final two months of the regular season, Hibbert was the Pacers’ main offensive force in a critical Game 2 that wasn’t determined until the final seconds.

West sealed the result with a pair of free throws with 10 seconds to play. Hibbert, who also had two blocked shots, fittingly grabbed the final rebound when Trevor Ariza’s desperation 3-pointer bounced off the rim with 1.9 seconds to play.

“Obviously, Roy Hibbert was a different player tonight,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Give him credit for bouncing back from a tough Game 1. He just had a big-time night and gave us a big lift.

“He’s the reason we won the game.”

Offensively, there’s no question.

On a night no other teammate got into a rhythm, including All-Star Paul George, who has been outstanding in the playoffs, Hibbert connected on four of his first five shots and finished 10 of 13 from the field. His 28 points were one short of his career playoff high, and the Pacers’ offense sputtered each time he was out of the game.

Hibbert was, in short, the difference-maker. And for that, he credits the sustained support of teammates — particularly from West and George — for a breakthrough performance that came in the wake of withering criticism across a spectrum of media, TV pundits and even former NBA players.

“Tonight, I felt I had only one thing on my mind, to help the team win,” Hibbert said. “I just hadn’t been as aggressive as I should have been in the past. Hopefully, this is something I can build on.”

George Hill had 14 points for the Pacers, and Lance Stephenson had 12. George had 11 on a quiet 5 of 13 shooting night.

Marcin Gortat led the Wizards with 21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Bradley Beal had 17 points, and Nene had 14. They were the only Washington players in double figures.

Washington shot slightly better from the field (45 percent) than the Pacers (44.4) percent but were out-shot at the free-throw line. The Wizards made only 5 of 12 attempts. Indiana was 18 of 21.

In the end, however, Hibbert was the difference.

“He made a decision that clearly he was going to step up,” Vogel said. “We didn’t call any more plays (than usual) for him. He just did it on his own.

“I’m sure he didn’t like how he played the other night and didn’t like the criticism.”

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