Frank Vogel not afraid to make adjustments, but the one he didn’t make might make the difference


Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel was an early season Coach of the Year candidate, but the Pacers’ late-season swoon has brought him into the crosshairs every bit as much as Roy Hibbert, George Hill and Paul George.

When he hit the button right next to the panic button by benching all of his starters on April 9 against the Milwaukee Bucks, some saw the move to be reactionary and weak. After a year of talking about home court advantage, to risk that advantage while the team was struggling against the likes of Henry Sims and the Sixers was the beginning of the end to some. A subsequent loss to the Miami Heat effectively moved most folks off of the Pacers’ bandwagon.

Since that loss, the Pacers’ struggles traveled with the team into the postseason and a home loss in Game 1 to the Atlanta Hawks brought the situation to Defcon-5, with none other than Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Hibbert and a struggling Hill being called to the bench by media and analysts everywhere.

The rationale was clear – Hibbert has a terrible matchup with stretch-center Pero Antic and the Hawks have correctly targeted the slow-footed big man on the backside of the pick-and-roll. Offensively, Hibbert had morphed into Kendrick Perkins, struggling to catch or hold onto the ball while taking ill-advised shots further and further away from the hoop. Hill had seemingly lost all confidence in an offense that had shut down due to a lack of penetration and ball movement.

Some of the potential fixes have been obvious, including a move to have Paul George cover Teague – and an increase in minutes for now-healthy backup point guard C.J. Watson. But at the center of it all, Hibbert’s precipitous and long-term decline over the past two months had no easy answer. By benching the big man, Vogel would walk him to the edge of a plank that Hibbert knows too well, having already succumbed to the tough love of prior coach Jim O’Brien. Functionally, a move would break up a first unit that has played heavy minutes together for two seasons now.

Nobody could blame the coach for trying to keep the team’s identity intact in the first game of a series against the 38-44 Hawks, a team whose general manager in Danny Ferry didn’t seem all that interested in making the playoffs.

So Vogel did a little bit of everything and by standing by his big man he took the first step toward rehabilitating the Pacers during Tuesday’s 101-85 win in Game 2.

Hibbert and Hill remained in the starting lineup, but defensive changes headlined the night as George was tapped to cover Teague and Hibbert was moved onto Paul Millsap. Hill drew the assignment of Kyle Korver, and at the three-minute mark of the first quarter Ian Mahimni was joined by Watson to replace Hibbert and Lance Stephenson – giving the Pacers a two-guard front of Hill and Watson to work offensively against Teague, Lou Williams and Shelvin Mack. Stephenson obviously didn’t like the minute reduction, but his seven points, three rebounds and five assists wore well as a supplement to the increased punch of the smaller lineup.

The early returns didn’t show on the scoreboard as the Hawks built an 11-point lead deep into the second quarter. But one wouldn’t know that from watching the play on the court, as George sunk his teeth into Teague, who continued to play great but didn’t have anywhere near the run of the yard he had in Game 1. Hill penetrated repeatedly in the first quarter and gained confidence throughout the game. Hibbert fought for better position, even though he continued to sputter offensively. Despite foul trouble, David West was aggressive in looking for his outside shot and his backup Luis Scola hit 9-of-14 shots for 20 points and seven boards in 19 minutes.

Hibbert continued to get beat up defensively, giving up just short of 20 points on outside shots and dribble drives to the hoop. But his footwork improved and on a number of plays his trademark anticipation appeared to be back, and on the times he was beat he didn’t appear to be as overmatched as he was in past games. The Pacers worked the ball into him in the post and on most touches his feet were either inside the paint already or just a foot or two away. He effectively angled for position as the ball moved from side to side and when nothing was there he focused on rebounding, even if his four boards in 24 minutes last night won’t be entered into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

Recognizing that George could slow down the front-end of Teague’s pick-and-roll, among other things, Vogel dared the Hawks to have DeMarre Carroll and Korver to beat Hill and Watson, which didn’t happen. When Williams or Mack was in the game they essentially gave the Pacers a hall pass to add offensively-minded Watson onto the floor at no cost. Hill was able to move to a more comfortable shooting guard position where he received scant attention, and Watson executed the pick-and-roll to near perfection while aggressively stepping into open looks.

Defensively, George was nothing short of phenomenal and all together the Pacers finally made the Hawks look like the Hawks – a team with talented starters but little depth and not nearly enough offensive firepower to keep up with a signature defense that defined Indiana’s blistering start. Ian Mahinmi didn’t do anything to dispel the notion that he should be getting more minutes, blocking a pair of shots while hedging and recovering in a way that supported the case for sending Hibbert to the second unit.

But Vogel wasn’t having any of that.

By emptying the pantry first, using a series of cross-matches and less severe fixes, Vogel was able to hedge his bets and keep Hibbert from walking the plank. In return, Hibbert responded with baby steps back toward respectability. Aside from his improvements in defense, he showed quickness and aggression in his misses and properly deferred rather than forcing up bad shots. It appeared as if he remembered that an entry pass doesn’t have to be his proving ground, but merely a unique way of creating penetration to bend the defense.

The Pacers don’t need him to be a 20 point-per-game scorer, and against the Hawks they merely need him not to be a liability. By pushing the button right next to the panic button, Vogel was able to mask his center’s weaknesses and give his nucleus optimal conditions to succeed. Hibbert will continue to struggle with matchups throughout this series, but in the end it will be the change that Vogel didn’t make that keeps hope alive if they can claw their way back into a matchup against the Heat.

Sink or swim, the Pacers’ defensive anchor needs to stay on board for them to have a chance to sail off into the sunset.

Alvin Gentry on refs after controversial James Harden foul: “You can’t guess on plays”

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Alvin Gentry was heated after the New Orleans Pelicans lost to the Houston Rockets on Saturday night, all thanks to a late foul on James Harden. Oh boy.

Gentry was given a technical foul after speaking with officials with 5:39 to go in the fourth quarter in a tight matchup between the two Western Conference playoff teams. The Pelicans coach was heated about a foul called on Jrue Holiday after Harden swung through the defender’s area to get free throws on a 3-point attempt.

That didn’t sit right with Gentry, who went after referee David Guthrie. After complaining for some time, Gentry got a handle on himself and went back to his seat on the bench. That’s when he was called for a technical foul.

Here’s the play in question, and Gentry’s response after the game:

Gentry does have a general point, and sounds like just about any non-Houston fan you overhear at games or in bars regarding Harden’s wacky inflatable flailing arm tube man style. Nevermind his driving — which consistently gets players to legitimately hack away at his arms — the question on the play in New Orleans is whether the defender has a right to that space, and whether Holiday made a move.

Pelicans broadcaster David Wesley pointed out that if a defender is in his own defensive space and not moving, it shouldn’t be a foul if the offensive player jams his way into the defender’s arms. That’s part of why the idea of verticality works for modern NBA big men defending the rim.

Offensive players are getting more astute at drawing contact, then finding a way to immediately get fouled after the contact. It’s something that will need to be addressed by the NBA in coming seasons, as there are quite a few instances of contact specifically being drawn by an offender by moving into the defender’s space and drawing contact with their arms.

However, on the play in question, if you rewind it enough times you can barely see Holiday’s arm and elbow flex reactively before Harden moves the ball up. Thus, in the purview of instant replay, it was probably a foul.

Here it is in super slo-mo:

Gentry is likely to get a nice big fine as others have this season for criticizing officials. It seems that even after the All-Star Break meeting to sort out some issues between the NBPA and NBRA not everyone is happy.

Expect a bigger overhaul and more announcements regarding NBA refereeing in the offseason.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue sits out second half Saturday with illness

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CHICAGO (AP) Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue remained in the locker room to start the second half of their game against the Chicago Bulls because of an illness.

Lue was on the sideline as the Cavaliers used a strong second quarter to build a 17-point halftime lead. He did not come out for the start of the third Saturday night, and he did not return to the game.

Lue has missed one other game this season due to illness. He is expected back on Monday when the Cavs host the struggling Bucks.

The Cavaliers went on to get the win over the Bulls Saturday, 114-109.

Grizzlies snap 19-game skid with 101-94 win vs Nuggets

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 24 points, Tyreke Evans added 20 and the Memphis Grizzlies snapped a 19-game losing streak with a 101-94 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.

Wayne Selden scored 16 points for Memphis by hitting 6 of 7 shots, including 4 of 5 from outside the arc. Marc Gasol added 14 points as Memphis won for the first time since Jan. 29.

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Jamal Murray finished with 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting. Denver shot just 37 percent overall and 27 percent from 3-point range.

Denver entered the night in ninth place in the Western Conference, a game out of the playoff race. Denver played without leading scorer Gary Harris, who is expected to miss the next few games with a right knee sprain suffered against Detroit on Thursday.

The Nuggets struggled through a miserable first half of shooting, connecting on 22 percent in the first quarter. Memphis stretched its lead to 21 early in the second quarter before Denver cut it to 53-48 at halftime.

Brooks hit four 3-pointers to start the second half and keep Memphis ahead.

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LaMarcus Aldridge’s 39 points lead Spurs past Wolves, 117-101

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) – LaMarcus Aldridge had 39 points and 10 rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a sluggish start to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 117-101 on Saturday night.

San Antonio won its third straight to move into fifth in the Western Conference five days after dropping to 10th and out of playoff position.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 23 points and nine rebounds for Minnesota, which dropped to sixth in the West.

The Spurs had lost three straight and nine of 11 but are now unbeaten halfway through a six-game homestand.

San Antonio shot 84 percent in the second quarter, their best shooting quarter since 2010.

Two nights after battling New Orleans’ Anthony Davis on both ends, Aldridge had to take on another All-Star in Towns. Aldridge responded by leading the Spurs in scoring for the 49th time this season while helping keep Towns in check.

Aldridge scored 18 of 21 points during a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, including 12 straight. He capped the run by coming from the weak side to swat Towns’ floater deep into the seats.

Minnesota started quickly, shooting 78 percent from the floor in the first 5 1/2 minutes while San Antonio floundered at 17 percent. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called timeout, only to watch the Timberwolves’ Jeff Teague steal the ball once play resumed.

The Spurs responded behind veteran reserves Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay. San Antonio went on a 16-4 run bridging the first and second quarters to take a 29-26 lead.

Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points for Minnesota and Teague had 16.