Old Style Pacers Are Built To Contend
Last season, Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s “smash-mouth basketball” took the surprising Pacers to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where they led the Miami HEAT two games to one before dropping three in a row to the eventual NBA champions. This year, Indiana is back stronger, tougher and nastier than ever and proving that last season’s 52-win pace was no fluke.
“[The Pacers] are big time,” Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “Tough, physical, nasty – they play playoff basketball every night. They are not into up and down, up and down. They just try to come down and carve you apart. They hit, bang and bump you. Any time they get a chance, they bump you to get you off your constitution a little bit. Anything to rattle you physically and legally, they put their hands on you. Just like playoff games are played and they play that style each and every night.”
Vogel assumed the reins midway through the 2010-11 season from Jim O’Brien and took a losing program to the playoffs that April. He had a philosophy that matched the talent then-president Larry Bird had assembled. Vogel wanted a big team that played tough defense and rebounded.
“When I took over, I felt this was the style that was winning in the playoffs at the time,” Vogel said. “We have seen some teams that have gone small, like Miami and Oklahoma City last year, have succeeded at the highest level, but when I took over it was [Andrew] Bynum and [Pau] Gasol in L.A., [Kevin] Garnett and [Kendrick] Perkins won it, and [Tyson] Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki won championships. So I like playing with two bigs and winning the defensive rebounding battle and then trusting the pass offensively. So that’s the style we are trying to play and hopefully it wins at playoffs. If you don’t have the players to do that then you have to adjust and play whatever style your personnel dictates, but give Larry Bird credit for putting together a team that can play this style.”
The Pacers made immediate improvements in their defensive ratings with Vogel running the show, improvements that have continued into this season. Currently the Pacers lead the league in rebounding differential at plus 4.7 boards per game and hold opponents to a league-worst field goal percentage of 41.5 percent.
“For us it starts on the defensive end,” David West said. “We are trying to win as many games as possible. We are in a tough playoff race. We understand that our defense is going to give us a chance. We are aggressive defensively. We play together defensively and try to protect the rim and guard the three-point line and force teams to score over us.”
The Pacers play this style with pride. It has become the team’s identity and something they can hang their hat on every night. This level of defensive intensity isn’t common throughout the NBA, but the Pacers have the size and depth of talent to make it work. Former All-Stars Roy Hibbert and West are backed up by the seven-foot Ian Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough. The return of Danny Granger to the lineup just adds to this team’s depth.
“It’s something we take pride in, we are a physical team,” Hansbrough said. “We play with physicality, that is just the way we are. For a team that doesn’t play physically, it is kind of hard to play like that, but it is something we do every night. It has kind of become our identity. We are deep and that is what makes us good. We have a very good starting core and we have guys who can come in and mix it up too.”
“Obviously our bench is a little different [from last year],” West said. “We got a seven-footer behind Roy so we don’t have a letdown in terms of size and our wings are bigger. We know that if we come in and hit first and have that aggressiveness on the defensive end, we will create opportunities for us on the offensive end.”
On the same pace as last season, the Pacers have two five-game winning streaks over their past 15 games including statement wins over the Miami HEAT, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. This team will not be satisfied with an early second-round exit. The Pacers believe they can contend this season.
“We want to be a contender,” Hansbrough said. “We feel like this year we can contend for a championship. We are not settling on the first or second round, we want to go all the way.”
On Sunday, the Pacers beat the Bulls for the second time in less than a month and Vogel collected his 100th victory in just 164 contests as a head coach. If defense wins championships, the Indiana Pacers are on the right track. No one is playing tougher, old-style defense than Vogel’s team this season.