Throughout their well-documented struggles since the All-Star break, the Indiana Pacers have been searching for answers on how they can revert to the dominant form they displayed at the beginning of the season that led many to peg them as the biggest threat to the Miami Heat’s third consecutive title dreams.
Facing the humiliation of exiting the playoffs in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks - the only team that made it to the postseason with a losing record - the Pacers rediscovered themselves in the nick of time to salvage their season.
After losing the home court advantage they had been working for since opening night in a Game 1 loss at home wherein the Hawks stretched out the Pacers’
defense with their 3-point shooting and small lineup, Frank Vogel had been tweaking his rotations and schemes only to find minimal success. After falling again at home in Game 5 to dig themselves a 2-3 hole and his neck getting called out in the media and by the hometown faithful, the Pacers head coach went back to the things that had given him success in the past: themselves.
Vogel not only went back to the blue collar, smash mouth style the Pacers were known for with their stifling defense and grind-it-out offense that pounded the ball in the paint, he also stuck to his rotation of players from last season, with the exception of
backup point guard C.J. Watson.
For all the positive reviews the Pacers got for retooling their bench and acquiring guys like Luis Scola, Evan Turner and Chris Copeland to bolster their title bid, the Pacers head coach went back to the rotation that got them within a stone’s throw of the NBA Finals last season. Scola and Turner saw a combined playing time of 12 seconds in the Pacers’ must-win Game 6 and Game 7.
“It’s not easy playing a team that’s going to shoot 44 threes - it’s not easy defensively to guard that kind of lineup, especially when 18 of the threes they took were by their big guys. They had us spread out and scrambling,” Vogel said after the Pacers’ 92-80 win in Game 7.
Vogel maintained that it was the Hawks style, and nothing to do with the team’s late season struggles, which led them to a tougher
series than everyone expected against the Hawks. Another thing he maintained was his faith in his center, Roy Hibbert, who had 0 points and 2 rebounds combined in Games 5 and 6 while facing the most scrutiny he has had to deal with in his entire career. Hibbert had 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in the closeout win.
“I’m happy to see Roy bounce back with a big performance and a big game. We needed that, not just on the defensive end where he blocked five, but changed several others, proved great 1-on-1 defense on Paul Millsap where he went 0-9 in the first half,” Vogel credited his big guy.
And with Hibbert flashing his old form, everyone else just followed suit. Lance Stephenson and David West had solid games and provided the toughness and aggressiveness they are accustomed for, while Ian Mahinmi and C.J. Watson stepped up big off the bench. The biggest sign, however, that the Pacers had rediscovered themselves was in the play of their best player, Paul George, who had a stellar game with 30 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and four steals.
"Paul George really carried us for a lot of the game on the offensive end. He's a gamer. The bigger the stakes, the better he's going to play," Vogel said about his two-time All-Star who turned 24 just a day prior to Game 7.
"At some point, something had to give as far as them having the legs to make jumpers,” said George, who often gets criticized when he struggles on offense, but doesn’t get enough credit for
playing defense against the other team’s best perimeter player on a nightly basis. “ I just thought we grinded them down so much throughout this series that when you get to a Game 7, those jump shots just weren't falling."
With their swagger seemingly back, the Pacers have to go back to the drawing board to face a young and hungry Washington Wizards team beginning Monday for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series. The Wizards upset the favored Chicago Bulls - a team that plays the same style as the Pacers - in the first round of their series, and provide a new set of matchup difficulties for the Pacers.
Will they continue to stick to who they are and play like they did for the majority of the season? Or will they falter and stumble anew? With this talented but unpredictable Pacers crew, my guess is as good as Forrest Gump and a box of chocolates. You just never know what you’re going to get.