by Kent Sterling
If the Indiana Pacers were penalized in proportion to their level of pathetic play for Sunday’s home loss against Atlanta, they might have dropped out of the playoffs all together, but that’s not the way the standings work, so despite losing eight-of-11 the Pacers are only one-half game out of the top spot in the East.
Miami lost at home to Brooklyn last night, and heads to Memphis tonight while the Pacers play against the truly terrible Milwaukee Bucks. If Memphis beats the Heat, and the Pacers take care of business versus the 14-63 Bucks, the Pacers will re-assume the lead in the race for the #1 seed.
No question the Pacers are not playing anything resembling their best basketball as they try to recapture the fire in the bellies and legs, but the goal they have focused upon since the Heat sent them home with a road loss in Game Seven of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals is still right there for the taking.
Fans and media are expressing hyperbolic fury toward the Pacers what is being lamented as their collapse, but all it will take are wins against the Bucks, Heat, and Magic to earn home court until the NBA Finals.
In early November, if anyone had offered a guarantee of 56 wins and the #1 seed in the East, every fan and media member would have gleefully grabbed it. The 33-7 start raised expectations beyond reason toward a greatness this roster is simply not capable of sustaining, as the 20-18 recent run has shown.
The Pacers boast a lot of good players, but none who could be included in the class of greats like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, at least not yet. Paul George is really good, a regular all-star, but not great. Lance Stephenson is mercurial – to be kind. Roy Hibbert at his best is a difference maker on the defensive end, and at his worst an emotionally fragile distraction. David West and George Hill are steady components.
Frank Vogel has had a lot of fun since taking the reins of the team from hard-driving and humorless Jim O’Brien. It’s not hard to get people to respond initially when you are the breath of fresh air that players have prayed for, but can a nice guy like Vogel force players to dig deep when a game or season is on the line?
That’s the question that must be answered over the next week – and beyond in the playoffs – that will determine the course for Larry Bird as he evaluates Vogel.
But the NBA is a players’ game, and the corrections needed to right the ship and get the train that appeared to have no brakes in November, December, and January rolling again must come from the players themselves. This is not a Vogel problem, and shouldn’t be diagnosed as such.
Bob Kravitz and others might be tired of hearing about fatigue, physical and mental, but when I asked Paul George about the grind of an 82-game season, his eyes told the story better than his words. He looked exhausted.
George is 23, and at 23 he is still naive enough to believe that hard work is the correct answer to all questions about success. Sometimes the answer is rest. Experience is the best teacher for the best ratio between hard work and dedicated rest, and this season has been an excellent teacher of that lesson.
The same is true for Vogel, who has been consistently rewarded throughout his career for hard work. It’s the most important and obvious point of differentiation in a young coach’s career, and Vogel has embraced it. Sometimes the right answer is to back off the gas a little bit, and Vogel is learning that this season.
So if the Pacers can win tonight, Friday at Miami, and Wednesday at Orlando, while losing to Oklahoma City, they will finish 56-26. If the Heat lose to the Pacers and one of their other opponents (@ Memphis tonight, @ Atlanta on Saturday, Monday @ Washington, or in their season finale vs. Philly), the Heat will finish 56-26. The tiebreaker will belong to the Pacers because of the 3-1 head-to-head record versus the Heat.
Not such a longshot, and if that happens, all will be forgiven and forgotten.
It’s a long season. Everybody relax.