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.

Report: NBA not bringing other eight teams to Disney World bubble

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The NBA bringing the “Delete Eight” teams to its Disney World bubble to train as other teams depart?

Like other plans for the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pistons, Hawks, Hornets, Timberwolves and Warriors… it’s not happening.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBPA has no interest in that idea, sources said. It’s a non-starter. The inevitable solution for the eight teams left out of Orlando: The NBA and NBPA agreeing upon voluntary workouts in the team facilities, sources said.

The NBPA won’t agree to mandatory reporting for players on the eight teams outside of the restart but will eventually allow it on a voluntary level, sources said.

Bringing those other eight teams to the Disney World bubble was always a ridiculous idea. Why would the NBA jeopardize its highly profitable setup just so some lousy teams could train and maybe hold glorified scrimmages?

Voluntary team workouts are a reasonable allowance. Though it’s difficult to ensure players coming and going from a team facility won’t spread coronavirus, some players are playing basketball in groups, anyway. At their own facilities, teams can at least enforce protocols to increase safety. And players who’d rather be more careful wouldn’t be forced to participate.

There’s no reason to make anything mandatory. These eight teams’ seasons are over.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.