NBA@2: Pacers Finding Their Swagger
When the Indiana Pacers fired Jim O’Brien last season and appointed Frank Vogel their interim coach, not many outside of Indiana expected that to be a long-term move. Vogel would serve out the season and then likely be replaced by someone like Mike Brown, Rick Adelman or someone with head coaching experience. When Vogel actually took the helm, however, that perception quickly changed. The team immediately embarked on a major turnaround, making the playoffs first the first time since Rick Carlisle lead the team in 2005-06. In exit interviews the players confirmed what GM David Morway and President Larry Bird already believed – Vogel was the right man for the job going forward.
“It was just a very rewarding experience for me because I wanted it so bad for these guys,” Vogel tells HOOPSWORLD of his players’ response. “I’ve been around these guys, a lot of these guys for a couple of years, some of the guys were new but they worked so hard to get over the hump and make the playoffs and I just wanted it for them. When I took over I wanted to do whatever I could to help put them in a position to earn that success and for them to show that gratitude back at the end of the year was very rewarding.”
As good as the Pacers were at the end of last season, Morway and Bird stayed busy improving over the offseason. In particular, they added All-Star power forward David West and NBA champion George Hill to the roster, looking to add some playoff experience and veteran leadership to the mix.
“They put together a heck of a team,” says Vogel. “I’ve stepped into a wonderful situation. I felt we were ten games under .500 when I took over last year but I felt all along going into last year that was going to be our breakout year. That was going to be our year under Jim O’Brien that we were going to get into the playoffs and get over the hump and we hit some road bumps along the way and when I took over I just tried to reaffirm to our guys that this was our time. This is our time to take that step and Larry and David have done a phenomenal job, not only putting together talented pieces but high character guys and that’s not easy to do.
“George Hill’s a terrific leader and a terrific character guy so he’s just … he and David West have both added to the chemistry in our locker room. The togetherness which we preach everyday is our greatest strength. George has really given us quality minutes at backup one and backup two and the understanding that he can close games out for us at point guard or close games out for us at shooting guard. If he’s the guy that’s going, we always go with the hot hand and he’s just a boon for this team.”
Indiana’s strong start this season was impressive, especially when you consider they played 15 of their first 22 games on the road. The Pacers have been at or near the top of the conference from the opening tip, and even held the second-best record in the league at the beginning of February.
“It’s a tough schedule, but you just have to have a playoff mindset,” says Vogel. “I think our first road game of the year was at Toronto, it was a sellout crowd and they had the towels waving and it was a crazed environment, much like the playoffs. I told them all, ‘look around, this feels like the United Center when we played the Bulls last year,’ and we knew we could succeed against the Bulls. We outplayed them in Game One and Game Two and I told the guys – we’ve got to have this kind of mindset every time we step into an opposing arena. We’ve started to believe that we’re a good team and regardless who we’re playing or where we’re playing we want to walk into these buildings feeling like we’re expected to win. We’re the favorite and we’re not going to let the home team upset us and just having that kind of mindset and swagger and a playoff mentality has helped us have some early success on the road.”
This season the Pacers are not the timid team that felt lucky to be in the playoff discussion. After giving the Bulls all they could handle the Pacers found some swagger, and Vogel says they have carried that swagger into 2011-12.
“They have, but these guys built the confidence to be a winning team at the end of last year and they would have carried that through this year and probably been an above .500 team without any changes. The addition of David West and George and Lou (Amundson) and guys like that has taken it to where we’re not just an above .500 team, we feel like we’re one of the best teams in the NBA. It’s a good way to take care of your business and carry yourselves every time you step on the court.”
The NBA has taken notice, too. When the Pacers take the court teams know they’re in for a battle, and they’re just getting started. The days of discounting Indiana are over, and they might just prove to be a very deep playoff team this season.
Up Close: David West
Going into the very brief NBA free agency period the Indiana Pacers had their sights set on All-Star free agent David West. They also felt that landing him was a long shot. As it turned out, West landed in Indiana after all, and this exclusive interview West admits it was difficult to leave the City of New Orleans, talks about adapting to the Pacers and more!
Los Angeles Lakers guard is one of the more divisive players in the NBA. Fans of the Lakers worship him like a god; those who hate the Lakers tend to hate Kobe, as well.
I fall into neither category. I’m not from LA, so the Lakers have never been my team, but I also don’t hate him for beating my hometown Houston Rockets on that rare occasion when they made the playoffs a couple of years ago.
When I say I love Kobe Bryant, it’s not so much because he has five championships and represents the world’s most popular basketball team; it’s because he personifies a level of professionalism and absolute determination that has made him the perennial MVP candidate and champion that he is.
Kobe is a no-nonsense guy.
From my perspective as a journalist, I love that Kobe doesn’t engage in B.S. Ask him a great question and he’ll give you a great answer. Ask him something stupid and he might just call you stupid. Last night in Boston we had a case in point. Here Kobe sits, answering questions about one of the greatest rivalries in sports – that of the Celtics versus the Lakers – and suddenly someone starts asking him about Jeremy Lin. You know, the kid who just got picked up by the New York Knicks.
Kobe was courteous the first time he was asked about Lin.
“I know who he is, but I don’t really know what’s going on too much with him,” Bryant said in an interview that was transcribed by WEEI in Boston. “I don’t even know what he’s done. Like, I have no idea what you guys are talking about. I’ll take a look at it tonight, though.”
Prompted to talk about Lin a second time – again, this is postgame following a hard-fought win over the Lakers’ biggest rival – he was a little less game.
“I don’t even know what the [fudge] is going on. What the [fudge] is going on? Who is this kid? I’ve heard about him and stuff like that, but what’s he been doing? Is he getting like triple doubles or some [stuff]? He’s averaging 28 and eight? No [stuff]. If he’s playing well, I’ll just have to deal with him.”
That’s enough, right? Kobe has just scored 27 points in a showdown with Ray Allen and has already made it clear that he hasn’t looked at the Knicks (their next opponent) yet.
And then someone asks him if he will consider guarding Lin on Friday night.
“Jesus Christ,” exclaims Bryant. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Let’s also not assume that Bryant is going to play out of position on the defensive end against a player who was auditioning for the D-League last week.
No disrespect to Lin, who has put together three great games for New York at a time when the Knicks really needed someone to step up and play well, but really? Three questions about Jeremy Lin after a big game like Lakers/Boston?
Ask Kobe Bryant a great question, he’ll give you a great answer.
Sometimes there is a shortage of great questions.
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