For all intents and purposes, these Indiana Pacers had no right challenging the Miami Heat in South Beach. Let's face it. As well as they have been playing against lesser teams recently, no one expected the Pacers to have much of a shot against an almost full strength Heat squad on a 6-game winning streak. This was supposed to be their reality check.
But for most of their 117-112 loss, the Pacers were just as good, if not better than their superstar studded rivals. They played extremely hard against a team miles ahead of them in talent, attacking every play and never giving up. The fact that they thought they had a chance, and the fact that they had a great chance, speaks volumes about how far this team has come since Jim O'Brien was fired. And it was terrific to see how disappointed the team was about losing such a close game. They could have been happy to have pushed a contender this far. But no. There are no moral victories for a team struggling to stay in the playoff race.
This was not the same Miami team the Pacers beat earlier in the year. This Miami team was clicking on all cylinders and looking to avenge that earlier loss in the season. And it took a vintage Lebron James effort -- 41 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists -- including some massive baskets down the stretch -- and a few mental lapses by the Pacers (Danny Granger being blown by when isolated, leading to Roy Hibbert fouling out; and Dahntay Jones's 5-second inbound violation with a chance to tie) for Miami to escape with the win.
Pacers fans must be excited after this game even though it was a loss. 20 and 10 for Hibbert. 19 for Granger. 18 for Hansbrough. 15 and 8 for Collison. They can hold their heads up high.
And as big as this game was, tomorrow's is even bigger. A home game against the Charlotte Bobcats, who are currently half a game ahead of the Pacers for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. Bring it on.
These Indiana Pacers have been 'Vogelized'. Interim coach Frank Vogel has brought new life to the formerly struggling team as they won their 4th in a row, a comfortable 105-86 victory over the New Jersey Nets. One of the two Indiana's Jones (lame joke I picked up from the announcers), Dahntay (the other being Solomon), top scored with 18 points in his return to his hometown.
The naysayers will point out that 3 of the 4 wins in this season high 4-game winning streak were against bottom of the ladder teams (Toronto, Cleveland and New Jersey), and the other one was against a banged up team (Portland) at home.
But it's not just the wins that have Pacers fans excited. It's the WAY the Pacers have been playing. Even a blind man can tell that these Pacers are more confident, are playing looser, and covering each other's backs out there. They're fighting, hustling and playing with a better idea of what is expected of them, something we hadn't seen for a while.
Nothing against fired coach Jim O'Brien, but this change was necessary.
Sure, wins were in games the Pacers ought to be winning (maybe with the exception of Portland), but don't forget, the wins against Cleveland and Jersey were on the road, and winning road games is something the Pacers have struggled with for years. And even though everyone was high on the Pacers after their road wins over Miami and the Lakers earlier in the season, that team never won 3 games in a row. Vogel's Pacers are 4 and counting.
The players aren't saying it out loud, but they are glad that O'Brien (as much as they respected and liked him) is gone.
Dahntay Jones: "He always has positive things to say. He tries to make you feel special. He's giving a lot of guys confidence. There's a huge parallel between him and Doc [Rivers] in terms of personality and love of the game. It's a good quality to have in a coach. He keeps our heads up. What Frank is doing is making sure that every day starts with a compliment and that's what we need."
Josh McRoberts: "I think everyone is a little more loose now and we're doing different things. I have a lot of respect for Coach O'Brien, but maybe sometimes change loosens things up. We now have a little bit more of a rotation and that's working."
Roy Hibbert: "We're close knit. We're allowed to make changes and adjustments in the game. Coach will ask for our advice in timeouts."
Darren Collison: "I feel like we didn't really believe in ourselves (earlier in the season), and now we're starting to believe we can come together as a team and win ballgames."
Tyler Hansbrough: “It was frustrating because you didn’t know what was going to happen. You didn’t know how to prepare. It was one of those things where if I wasn’t going to play, I wish I knew...It’s going to be fun now. Now I know how to prepare for each game. There’s no more guessing. I can be mentally and physically ready instead of not knowing and being out in the dark.”
As for Vogel, he has had some very bold things to say:
"We're changing the identity of our basketball team dramatically. We're a power-post team, blood and guts, old-school-smash-mouth team...No matter who we play, if we're up 20, down 20 or tied, we're going to keep coming after them. This is a new team, a new beginning. This is going to be a special end of the year. Jump on board. Come out and see us...When we get in the playoffs, in that final week or two of the season, all the one seeds, Boston, Miami, or Orlando -- they're not going to want to play this basketball team."
That said, the honeymoon doesn't look like it will extend beyond 4 games because the next opponent the Pacers have to play is the full strength Miami Heat, in Miami. Sure, the Pacers beat them earlier this season, but this is a very different Miami team. Doesn't matter. As long as the Pacers beat the teams they are supposed to beat (which didn't always happen under O'Brien) and compete with the teams they're supposed to lose to, they'll be fine.
Don't want to get ahead of ourselves here, Pacers fans, but there is hope that this team could make the playoffs this year. New coach Frank Vogel is confident they will after a gutsy 100-87 home win over the banged up Portland Trailblazers -- the Pacers' third in a row (the first time this season).
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).
I won't deny it. I was scared of this game. The Cavs had lost 21 games straight and were desperate to get a win, and I'm sure they looked at the struggling Pacers as a fantastic opportunity to break their drought.
On the other hand, this was an opportunity for new Pacers coach Frank Vogel to guide the team to a rare road victory. Whichever way you look at it, this was an interesting game.
When the Pacers raced out to a 10-0 start, I thought this game would probably end in a blowout. But the Cavs, through great hustle and an uncanny ability to continuously get to the line, managed to crawl their way back into the game and eventually took the lead in the fourth.
But fortunately for the Pacers, they kept their poise, and for the second game in a row, their opponents were the ones that imploded down the stretch.
The Pacers were down 108-107 when Mike Dunleavy hit a big three in transition to pull the team up 110-108. Then, with the score tied 110 apiece, Granger drove into the lane and dished it back out to a wide open Collison, who nailed another three to give the Pacers a 113-110 lead. The Cavs scored again to make it 113-112, and when Granger missed, the Cavs had a great chance to win the game.
But they came up empty twice (the Pacers were lucky to get away with a no-call on the first one) and Granger hit four free throws to complete the tight win -- 117-112.
You could look at this win in two ways. One, the Pacers were horrible and were lucky to get away with a close win against the worst team in the NBA. After all, they did give up 112 points and blew an early 15 point lead. On the other hand, you could view this as a good win against a desperate team.
Collison was the star of the game again, finishing with 22 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals, with 3 turnovers. I'm really liking what I'm seeing from the second year player, who really should have made the Sophomore team at the upcoming All-Star Weekend in LA. With Jim O'Brien gone, we're really starting to see Collison becoming more comfortable and aggressive, and hopefully this will continue for him as he establishes himself as a leader and a big time player on this team.
Granger had 23 points but shot only 5-13, but what I did like was that he got to the line often, hitting 12-13, including those four big ones to ice the game. That's what we need to see more of.
Hibbert also shot 5-13, which is still not good enough, but we'll take 13 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks from him right now if we can get it.
Another great thing to see was Vogel continuing to play Hansbrough and George -- Tyler played 22 minutes and Paul played 21 as both contributed 13 points.
Fantastic start for Frank Vogel as he is now 2-0 as the head coach of the Pacers. But these were two wins against two of the worst teams in the NBA. Next up is the real test -- Portland at home.
And so the Frank Vogel era begins with, as expected, a victory against the struggling Toronto Raptors, who came into the game with an 11 game losing streak.
With Jim O'Brien finally gone from the picture, his 37-year-old apprentice looked every part the new head coach as he guided the Pacers to a comfortable, if not somewhat nervewracking 104-93 win. The Pacers improve to 18-27 and look to build on this start against the only team that's struggling worse than the Raptors right now -- the Cleveland Cavaliers, who just got throttled by the Miami Heat to earn their 21st consecutive loss.
It's too early to judge Vogel just yet. This was a game the Pacers were expected to win and would have won even with O'Brien at the helm. Heck, they may have won more comfortably. They started out kind of shaky before breaking the game wide open in the second quarter behind some strong play by Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough, raising the lead up to 20 points before sloppiness and laziness allowed the Raptors to come almost all the way back.
Fortunately, the Raptors imploded in the late stages of the fourth quarter to allow the Pacers to escape with a W.
But I guess it could have been worse. The Pacers could have lost.
The biggest, and most pleasing difference tonight was Roy Hibbert, who showed flashes of the Hibbert we saw at the start of the season. Hibbert missed a couple of shots early, but he eventually settled in and dominated the Raptors down low to finish with 24 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks on 9-19 shooting in 30 minutes. This was a more confident, more aggressive Hibbert, which brings credence to the argument that O'Brien was the one that stifled Hibbert's confidence.
That said, Hibbert was playing against the Raptors' smaller and weaker big men, so we won't really know if he has really turned the corner until he plays a team with decent bigs.
Another positive Vogel brought with him was the rotation -- ie giving Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George decent minutes, especially the latter. Hansbrough threw up 13 shots in 15 minutes to finish with 14 points and 6 rebounds, and George was solid again with 16 points in 25 minutes. Hansbrough was just returning from pneumonia, so his minutes were probably limited on purpose. Hopefully we'll get to see both guys play at least 20-25 minutes a night for the remainder of the season.
Other positives? Allowing Darren Collison to play through his mistakes. I'm a big fan of Collison and what he can do for the team, at least on the offensive side, and tonight he had 16 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds -- numbers he is capable of putting up every night -- but he also had 6 turnovers. I'm glad Vogel allowed Collison to play through these mistakes instead of going to say TJ Ford, who didn't play tonight.
Also not playing was James Posey -- another good idea. I still don't understand why O'Brien continued to give him so many minutes with the team losing and young guys not getting minutes. It wasn't like Posey was doing anything apart from hitting the rare three pointer.
In all, a good victory for the Pacers considering Danny Granger struggled from the field (11 points on 3-15 shooting) -- but he did have 9 rebounds and 5 assists, and would have had a lot more if his teammates hit their shots. I liked what I saw from Granger tonight. He tried to play within the flow of the game and let his teammates get involved. His defense was also better.
As for the negatives? Well, the Pacers should have put the game away pretty much at halftime because they raced out to that 20 point lead. Vogel couldn't (or at least he couldn't get his players to) stop the bleeding as the Raptors chipped away at the lead to just trail by 6 points at the half.
There were also a few stretches where the Pacers kept turning the ball over (they had 25 for the game and still won!) without even putting up a shot, and he didn't do enough to steady the situation.
But at the end of the day, a win is still a win. The Pacers now have a day off before taking on the Cavaliers in Cleveland. That game is kind of like this one -- a game the Pacers should win, but a dangerous one because the Cavs are so desperate for a win. A good opportunity for Vogel to show that he can get his team prepared mentally.
The true test, though, is the Portland game at home two days after that. If the Pacers can pull that one out, then I'm sure you'll start to hear that maybe firing O'Brien now was the correct choice.