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.

Marc Gasol completes historic double, Spain wins World Cup

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BEIJING (AP) — Marc Gasol looked to the sky as confetti fell, some sticking to his massive shoulders, and then cradled and kissed the giant golden chalice that goes to the World Cup champions.

He’s getting good at hoisting trophies.

Gasol got to bask in a championship celebration for the second time in three months — and this time, he did it for his country. Tournament MVP Ricky Rubio scored 20 points, Sergio Llull added 15 and Spain won the World Cup for the second time by topping Argentina 95-75 on Sunday.

“We weren’t the most talented team,” Rubio said. “We weren’t the bigger team. Put anything you want, but we were the team with the biggest heart and we showed it tonight and we showed it during the whole tournament.”

Gasol scored 14 for the winners, who never trailed and added this crown to the one it claimed in 2006. And for him, 2019 will go down as a year the likes of which few others have enjoyed.

The Toronto Raptors center becomes the second player to win an NBA title and a FIBA world gold medal in the same year, joining Lamar Odom — who did it for the Los Angeles Lakers and USA Basketball in 2010. Gasol also became the 19th to win either an NBA or WNBA crown along with a gold medal, either of the Olympic or World Cup variety, in the same year.

The first 18 all did it for the U.S.

This time, Vamos España!

“NBA champion and a World Cup champion as well,” Gasol said. “What can I say? How does it sound to you? I feel very fortunate to be in this position and be able to play this game and help these guys be part of history of Spanish basketball.”

Llull and Rudy Fernandez — the team captain, the one who initially got to accept the Naismith Trophy — went to cut down the nets shortly after the final buzzer. Gasol carried the game ball to the gold-medal ceremony, and Spanish fans wept in the stands during the national anthem.

Gabriel Deck scored 24 points for Argentina (8-1), which got off to a slow start and played uphill the rest of the way. Luis Scola was held to eight points, shooting 1 for 10 from the floor.

“We’re sad right now. We’re very sad,” Scola said. “But I feel confident, in hours, we’ll be able to look back and be very proud. They just played better than us. They were better. They deserved to win. They were the better team in the game and the tournament.”

Spain led 43-31 at intermission, after putting together a 14-2 run to open the game and a 17-1 run later in the half.

“This is basketball,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “If you play better than the other team, you win the game. And Spain was the best team today.”

Scola, even at 39 years old still Argentina’s best player throughout the tournament, didn’t get on the scoresheet until he made a pair of free throws with 2:57 left in the third quarter. But they only cut the Spain lead to 19, and by then the Argentinian fans who stood, sang and chanted for much of the game were relatively quiet.

The day belonged to Spain.

And the year belongs to Gasol.

“It’s unbelievable,” Gasol said.

Watch highlights from France taking bronze at World Cup, beating Australia 67-59

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Just as they did five years ago at the last World Cup, France has come away with the bronze medal.

The French came from 15 down at one point to beat Australia 67-59 and win the third-place game at the FIBA World Cup in China. Former Spur Nando De Colo led the way for France with 19 points, Orlando’s Evan Fournier added 16 but on a rough shooting night (5-of–17), and Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum added nine points and six assists. You can see the game’s highlights above.

After the game, Fournier was talkative, including slamming the travel and schedule of this World Cup, spread all across China.

Utah was led by 17 points from Utah’s Joe Ingles and 15 from San Antonio’s Patty Mills.

Michael Jordan sells portion of Hornets to two new partners

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan is adding two partners to the Charlotte Hornets’ ownership group, selling them each a portion of the NBA franchise.

Gabe Plotkin, founder and chief investment officer of Melvin Capital, and Daniel Sundheim, founder and chief investment officer of D1 Capital, have joined the Hornets as partners, pending NBA approval.

Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, will remain the majority owner.

Jordan said in a statement released by the team Saturday that he’ll continue to be the man making decisions about the direction of the Hornets.

“I’m excited to welcome Gabe and Dan as my partners in Hornets Sports & Entertainment,” Jordan said. “While I will continue to run the Charlotte Hornets, make all decisions related to the team and organization, and remain the team’s NBA Governor, Gabe and Dan’s investment in the franchise is invaluable, as we continue to modernize, add new technology and strive to compete with the best in the NBA. Both Gabe and Dan are industry standard-setters and proven leaders, with a belief in philanthropy and a passion for the game of basketball. They share my commitment to Charlotte and the Carolinas, and I look forward to working with and learning from them.”

Marc Gasol goes for history when Spain meets Argentina in World Cup final

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BEIJING (AP) — Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Lamar Odom, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving.

Those are the only five players to win an NBA title and a gold medal in the same year, whether it was in FIBA or Olympic competition, with Pippen doing it twice.

It is an exclusive club – one that Marc Gasol is on the cusp of joining.

A mere three months after helping the Toronto Raptors win the NBA Finals, Gasol has led Spain to the gold medal game at the World Cup. It’ll be Spain against Argentina on Sunday, with both nations looking for their second title. Spain won the world championship in 2006 when Gasol was a 21-year-old backup, and Argentina won the inaugural tournament in 1950.

“I’m so deep in the rabbit hole right now that I don’t get to see much light,” Gasol said. “You’re so focused on your opponent, your next rival, recovering, doing whatever’s necessary to win games that you don’t look at the big picture. It’s been great. I’m very fortunate.

“I knew that committing to the national team this summer would not be easy physically. But it’s so worth it, and not just because we’re in the final game.”

He simply willed Spain into the final game.

Gasol scored 33 points – his career-high for any of the 18 FIBA-sanctioned or Olympic tournaments he’s played over the last 18 years – in Spain’s double-overtime win against Australia in the semifinals. He gave up his NBA offseason to be part of this team, a group that failed to medal at the last World Cup in Spain five years ago, and knows he might not have too many more years left on the international stage.

“It’s the responsibility of passing along that commitment, that loyalty to the team,” said Gasol, who still remembers the thrill of getting invitation letters from the Spanish federation to be part of youth teams when he was 11 or 12. “Those values that we were taught so many years with the older players, now it’s our turn to pass on the legacy to the next generation. And that’s not talent, that’s just commitment.”

Argentina has one of those passing-legacy-on players, too.

Luis Scola, 39 years old, was part of the team that won gold for Argentina at the 2004 Athens Olympics – and he’s been the best player for his team at the World Cup. He scored 28 points in the semifinal win over France, and on a team that has flashy guards who aren’t afraid to throw behind-the-back passes in any situation Scola has been the steadying force in the biggest moments.

“I’m only 27,” France center Rudy Gobert said as he lauded Scola after the semifinal matchup. “Maybe when I’m 39, I’ll know the secrets that Scola knows.”

Here’s some of what to know going into Sunday’s final:

DOUBLING UP

Pippen’s double-gold years came in 1992 and 1996 with Chicago. Jordan’s was in 1992 with the Bulls, James’ was in 2012 with Miami and Irving’s was in 2016 with Cleveland – all of those being Olympic years. Odom played on the U.S. world championships team in 2010, after his Los Angeles Lakers won that year’s NBA Finals.

OTHER DOUBLES

There have been 14 U.S. women who won a WNBA title along with a World Cup or Olympic gold medal in the same year, led by Sue Bird – who did it three times (2004 Olympics, 2010 world championship, 2018 World Cup).

UNBEATENS

Spain and Argentina are the only unbeaten teams left in the World Cup, each 7-0 so far. This is the fourth time that the gold medal will be decided in a game between unbeaten teams. The others: U.S. over Turkey (both 8-0 entering) in 2010, Spain over Greece (both 8-0) in 2006, and Argentina over the U.S. (both 5-0) at the first world championship in 1950.