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

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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.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

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It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

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The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.

Jarrett Allen denies Kyrie Irving rumors, “He acts like a normal teammate”

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It hasn’t taken long for the “Kyrie Irving isn’t a good leader in Brooklyn” rumor mill to start up. The Nets 6-8 start combined with a desire in some corners of the NBA (and NBA Twitter) to pile on Irving has started the talk. Whether those rumors are just smoke or there’s some fire there depends on who you ask.

It was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who brought the topic to the forefront again on First Take.

Just as a refresher, anything Smith says should be taken with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt. His job is to stir things up. That doesn’t mean he has no connections.

Nets center Jarrett Allen did an AMA on Bleacher Report and shot down the idea Irving is a bad influence in the locker room.

He acts like a normal teammate. People say that he has mood swings, but that’s a complete lie. He wants to see us succeed and do well if anything.

Allen added this when asked to compare playing with Irving vs. D'Angelo Russell.

They’re kind of different. Kyrie can score from anywhere, even without me setting up the pick-and-roll. DLo…we worked well; if he didn’t score, he’d kick it to me to score.

The Nets are a franchise inhabiting a strange space this season. First, this ultimately is Kevin Durant‘s team, but he doesn’t really get the keys until he can play, which almost certainly means next season. That makes Irving an interim Alpha on that team, but that’s an unusual dynamic.

Second, this is a Nets team that has rebounded from as low as it can get in the NBA to being a place Irving and KD wanted to play by establishing a culture, an identity. This is a lunch pail group of players who were selfless and bought into the team’s ideas and concepts. Nobody was a superstar, it was team first. Except, in come two superstars who bring their own ways of doing things — and the Nets can’t mess with that. There are compromises that need to go on for both sides, with Irving/KD bending to the Nets some, but the Nets giving them superstar treatment.

All of that creates friction that is going to rub some people the wrong way. Plus, Irving is a unique personality who is going to do things his way, and that will bother others. Some of those people will talk to the media, but that doesn’t mean everyone — or even a majority — feel the same way. It’s usually people who feel aggrieved who want to vent.

How all this plays out in Brooklyn is going to be something to watch. But the ultimate test is next season, not this one.