Wins over Toronto and Cleveland were expected, but now Vogel finally has a win over a quality team, even if they have been struggling with injuries. However, it's the way these new Pacers have been playing that has me excited.
Darren Collison (11 points, 7 assists) and AJ Price (7 points) are playing with more freedom and we're seeing their confidence and aggression grow with every game. Tyler Hansbrough (13 points, 8 rebounds) and Paul George (6 points, 4 rebounds) are getting playing time and making the most of it. Roy Hibbert (15 points, 6 rebounds) is finally playing with confidence again. And even Danny Granger is starting to feel more comfortable by taking better shots -- he led the way with 25 points and 9 boards today.
The problem with Jim O'Brien was that he kept the players in the dark with his bizarre rotations. Sure, the players have been professional and have been ready, but mentally, not knowing whether you'll play or how much you'll play game-to-game must have affected them. Furthermore, players were too afraid of making mistakes because it meant O'Brien would toss them on the bench (or inactive list), but all that did was limit the minutes of the young guys, while the veterans continued to make the same mistakes, or worse.
Vogel is giving the players new life by infusing them with confidence again. The young guys are given the green light to go out there and do their thing, and even if they make mistakes they'll get to keep playing. And as a result, the team is playing hard and they are playing to their strengths. They're getting good shots by dumping the ball low to Hibbert, setting screens and using the pick an roll. Plus they're running whenever they get the chance.
The defense is also getting better. Players are helping each other out, closing in on big guys in the post and closing out on shooters on the wing. Of course, Portland missed a lot of open shots today, but the Pacers also contested a lot of others.
The Pacers are now 20-27, and are only percentage points behind Charlotte for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. They have a great chance right now to make a push.
Next up is the New Jersey Nets (road game) which the Pacers can and should win if they play like they did today. After that, all the games until Feb 25 should be winnable with the exception of two games against the Heat (Charlotte, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Washington and Detroit twice).