March 2011: Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog by Conrad Brunner

I'm coming for you, Boyle

March 30, 2011

And so Mark Boyle, who hates it when people make a fuss over him, has (once again) managed to find a way to get people to make a fuss over him.

I have learned, much like some local TV stations learn their breaking news (by reading about it on the Internet) that tonight is Boyle's 2,000th game as the Pacers' radio play-by-play man.

May I add my humble congratulations to the thousands pouring in from around the globe. Has the White House called yet?

Not sure what the organization has in store to honor Boyle for showing up to work three or four days a week for six or seven months a year, but they'll probably hoist a banner to the rafters of Conseco Fieldhouse and give him a Bentley.

On this momentous occasion, I would like to take the opportunity to offer this heartfelt, sincere message: I'm coming for you, Boyle.

You see, I hit the scene the same year as Boyle, 1988. For seven seasons on the beat for The Indianapolis News and then the Star, I covered every single game with two exceptions (best friend's wedding and birth of son).

That gets me to 620.

Things are a little fuzzy from 1995 through 2000 (insert lifestyle-related punch line here). I briefly lost my mind and chose to become an assistant sports editor but quickly developed an allergic reaction to desks and ties and soon was spending as much time with the Colts as the Pacers.

Using a (very) conservative estimate of 25 games a year during that time, that brings me to 745.

In December of 2000, I joined and have covered every single home game since (with four exceptions, all related to family health emergencies). I've written about every road game (except those not televised, because I steadfastly adhere to the Journalistic Principle of refusing to write about a game I didn't see) but since I wasn't physically in attendance, I won't count those.

That brings me to 1,213, although there should be some kind of multiplier involved. I didn't have Slick there to do half my work for me all those years.

Technically, I'm 787 games behind Boyle in the standings, although I have absolutely no idea what the magic number might be.

Depending upon the depth of the Pacers' playoff runs, I should reach 2,000 by the year 2030.

Won't even begin to guess what the organization might have in store when that day comes. I can tell you this, though: I have absolutely no problem at all with people making a fuss over me.

Think they'll have a Bentley hovercar by then?

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Dunleavy return just what doctor ordered

March 29, 2011

( Getty Images)

Hidden in the glow of the Pacers' stirring 107-100 victory over Boston Monday night was the sight of Mike Dunleavy on the bench.

Not behind it, wearing a suit. On it, wearing a uniform.

Dunleavy is back, earlier than expected, in time to help the Pacers make their final playoff push.

Cleared to play, his broken left thumb healed in five weeks -- a week ahead of the original best-case projection of six-to-eight weeks -- Dunleavy will practice today and likely play Wednesday when the Pacers host Detroit.

"I'm excited," Dunleavy said. "I'm ready to do whatever they want me to do. I can't wait. Hopefully, we can do big things."

Interim coach Frank Vogel wants to see how Dunleavy looks in practice before determining his immediate game-night role. Because he was able to maintain his cardiovascular conditioning while recovering from surgery, Dunleavy may not need much time to spool up his game.

"I don't think his conditioning is going to be that much of a factor," Vogel said. "Obviously, game conditioning is different than drill work conditioning so there will be some element of that. I'm more concerned with his timing and playing through contact and all that stuff.

"(His role) is going to be based on how effective he is early and how long it takes him to get back to being himself. If he looks great right away then we'll see, we'll consider starting him again, we'll consider bringing him off the bench. I'm really not sure. I'm taking it day by day."

Dunleavy brings back averages of 11.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and .407 shooting from the 3-point line. The numbers don't overwhelm until you check what was produced in his absence.

Brandon Rush started the first eight games Dunleavy missed, Paul George the last 12. Those two combined to average 6.8 points on 41.8 percent shooting in the last 20 games.

With the Pacers (33-42) clinging to a one-game lead over Charlotte (31-42) in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Dunleavy's return is an important boost, particularly so because he has come back in time to regain his rhythm before the postseason begins.

"Any time you can bring in a guy that can shoot at this point, because later in the year, the defenses all know your offense and any time you get another guy that can stretch the floor -- and he can do more than that, obviously -- it's really important for them," said Boston coach Doc Rivers. "It's big. They're trying to make the playoffs and every healthy body, every healthy skilled body that they can get, they need."

Having watched the Pacers struggle to an 8-12 record in his absence, Dunleavy could play a key role in helping get the offense avoid its tendency toward stagnation. His ability to move without the ball, his instinct for making the right pass at the right time and his long-range shooting could prove invaluable.

Asked what he hoped to provide, Dunleavy said, "Just the same old stuff I normally do, play the game the right way, help these young guys out.

"I always know where I'm supposed to be on offense and defense and hopefully I can set a good example and bring some energy to the lineup."

Everything he does, the Pacers need. Dunleavy's return could be just what the doctor ordered. So to speak.

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Vogel wants Granger to use Pierce as model

March 28, 2011

( Getty Images)

When Danny Granger takes the floor tonight, he needs to not just match up with Paul Pierce, he must learn from his opponent.

At least that's how interim coach Frank Vogel is approaching it. He believes Granger should use Pierce's career as a model.

"I've actually talked to him about Paul Pierce for years, since I've been here," Vogel said. "I think he has a lot of similarities with Paul from the standpoint of at least defensively being able to shut down whoever he wants to with the game on the line.

"When he puts his mind to it he can be a shut-down defender. And again, just going from being a real volume shooter to playing within the team concept."

Pierce, of course, has transformed from a prolific scorer to a pure team player since Boston brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to form the big three. His scoring average has dropped, his emphasis on defense has improved and the Celtics, who made the playoffs just four times in Pierce's first nine seasons have reached the NBA Finals twice in the past three, winning the title in 2008.

The Pacers quite obviously don't have a Garnett or Allen to complement Granger but that doesn't change Vogel's basic message.

He pointed out the Dec. 19 meeting with the Celtics in which Pierce had a trouble-double of 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds while attempting just eight shots. Granger, on the other hand, shot 5-of-20 and scored 19 points and the Pacers lost 99-88.

Vogel said he told Granger, "This is where you need to grow your game, to be an efficient offensive weapon."

Granger has had a difficult month, averaging just 18.9 points on 36.9 percent shooting in 15 games, as he has tried to adapt to Vogel's less-can-be-more approach.

"It's just trying to settle into a new style and new system," Granger said. "As expected, some ups and downs but I think we're going to hit our stride, I'm going to be hitting my stride when I need to."

The team needs its best player in stride full-time.

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Granger heating up at right time for Pacers

March 25, 2011

( Getty Images)

It could be finding a comfort level, finally, after adapting to Frank Vogel's "smashmouth" offense and its shift in emphasis from the perimeter to the post.

Or it could just be the calendar.

Whatever the cause, Danny Granger's game appears to be coming around at just the right time for the Pacers.

In the last six quarters, Granger has racked up 50 points on 17-of-27 shooting (63 percent), sparking the Pacers to road wins over the Nets and Bobcats.

"It's about picking my spots in the offense," said Granger. "Over the years toward the end of the year I always start playing better than I had throughout the season. Hopefully that trend continues."

In each of the previous three seasons, Granger had his highest-scoring month in April. In that span, he averaged 26.7 points in the final month of the regular season while shooting 46 percent. His regular-season averages those three years were 22.9 points and 44 percent.

If his last game-and-a-half are any indication, Granger might be getting a jump start on his fast finish.

"I keep talking about playing within the framework of the offense," said Vogel. "That’s where he’s finding 90 percent of his shots. We need a go-to guy and he’s stepping up as a go-to guy."

Granger had been mired in a shooting slump. His 33-point outing against Charlotte marked the first time he reached 30 since Feb. 12. In the previous 12 games in March, Granger averaged just 18.1 points on 35 percent shooting.

"We're asking him to attack the basket more, obviously shoot the open three, be a gunslinger when he's open. but to try to get to the free-throw line more and post up more," Vogel said. "That's had a lot to do with the change of focus for him."

This will be the fourth season in a row Granger leads the Pacers in scoring but his average has been in decline, from a high of 25.8 in '08-09 to 24.1 last season to the current 20.7. His field goal percentage (.425) would represent a career-low.

As the face of the franchise through some difficult times, Granger has carried a disproportionate burden for the team's results. He also has been the major focus for opposing defenses as the Pacers have searched for consistent complementary scorers.

With Tyler Hansbrough emerging as a threat and Roy Hibbert re-establishing himself inside, things could open up for Granger – and the team could become less reliant upon his scoring.

"I think he can be a No. 1 guy but we're not looking to really have a No. 1 guy here," said Vogel. "We're looking to have five guys that play together, play unselfishly. His numbers falling off the past year or two is more indicative not of his play but the attention that he draws from opposing defenses and opposing coaches' game plans."

This year, however, Granger and the Pacers have a playoff berth in their hands. That light at the end of the tunnel can be an illuminating experience.

"I see a big light," Granger said. "We've really got something to play for now."

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Time for Pacers to close the deal

March 24, 2011

They have a three-game lead. They have seven of their final 10 at home.

For the first time since 2006, the Pacers firmly control their playoff destiny.

A team fully conditioned to dealing with adversity now finds itself in a position of advantage. Can they handle success?

"We can’t be content," said Roy Hibbert. "We have to make sure we keep working and getting better because sometimes when we’ve had success in the past it has gone to our heads and we come out sluggish.

"We have some big games against Sacramento and Detroit so we have to be hungry still."

This weekend will be a big test for the Pacers. Sacramento did a huge favor by winning in Milwaukee Wednesday night but in the process the Kings also illustrated they are a team that poses a threat. Detroit pushed Miami to the wire before falling by six.

Beyond their penchant for slow starts, there is much to like about the way the Pacers have played through the last two weeks. With Tyler Hansbrough joining Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert to give the team a three-pronged threat, they have been a much more explosive team.

The defense has given strong indications of coming around, limiting three straight opponents to fewer than 100 points.

But now they must do something they haven't had the opportunity to do since 2006: close the deal.

They can smell the playoffs. But that's all it is, for now.

"I only tasted them once in my rookie year and we had an early exit," said Granger, "so to be in this position again, especially with the youth we have on this team is really special."

Dunleavy among players giving aid to Japan

Pacers guard Mike Dunleavy is among 20 NBA players committed to supporting Direct Relief International in its effort to help the people of Japan recover from the recent earthquake and tsunami.

Many of the players are donating $1,000 for every point their score in a designated game. Because Dunleavy is currently inactive with a broken left thumb, he will make a set donation.

The donations will go to Direct Relief’s Japan Relief and Recovery Fund. Formed with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Fund supports the immediate health needs of people by working with local authorities best situated to assess, respond, and prepare for the long-term recovery.

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Collison adapting to many changes

March 22, 2011

( Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Point guard is the toughest position in the NBA to learn, roughly equivalent to quarterback in the NFL. It generally takes a year or two for a young talent to learn the coach's schemes, his teammates' tendencies and the nuances of the pro game.

Darren Collison's transition, then, has been four times harder than most.

In less than two seasons, Collison is playing for his fourth head coach. At as a rookie in New Orleans, he spent his offseason preparation and training camp under Byron Scott, who was fired nine games into the season and replaced by Jeff Bower.

After being traded to the Pacers last summer, he prepared for Jim O'Brien's system, a major adjustment because it required the point guard to play much more without the ball. When O'Brien was replaced by Frank Vogel on Jan. 30, Collison had yet another philosophical shift.

"It's been a maze but I try not to make excuses or look upon that too often," Collison said. "Those things happen. That's part of the NBA. Sometimes you have coaches come in and go.

"I may not have the luxury of playing for one coach with one system, it's been four different systems. But I'm fine right now and I'm adjusting real well."

Indeed, Collison has come on strong in March. In the last six games, he has averaged 16.5 points, 7.7 assists and shot 49.3 percent from the field. The Pacers have won four.

Vogel's approach to the point guard's role is a near-total reversal from that of O'Brien but it suits Collison and backup A.J. Price.

"Darren Collison is really starting to run the team again," said Vogel. "When I took over, I wanted to re-adjust the role of the point guard on this team and we sort of got away from that a little bit. Our wings were looking for outlet passes or trying to bring it up themselves.

"I want our point guards running the team and I had a talk with Darren and A.J. and really with the whole team that those guys are to run the floor and the point guards are to run the team and set those guys up. So we're putting the ball back in their hands and they're taking advantage of it."

With opportunity comes responsibility. When Collison struggles to create, it affects the whole team. He had zero assists Saturday in Memphis and the Pacers scored just 78 in a 21-point loss. But he bounced back with 12 assists in New Jersey Monday night and helped secure a 102-98 victory by scoring nine of the Pacers' final 11 points, including six in a row at the line in the final 90 seconds.

"It's more responsibility, a lot more responsibility on my part," Collison said. "I've definitely got to be more an extension of the coach. As far as Jim's offense, it was more of a team offense. This one, the point guard has to mind his p's and q's to make sure everything is executed."

While change has swirled around him, Collison has done his best to adapt.

Maybe now he can simply do his best.

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Future looks bright, according to experts

March 21, 2011

( Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

So how is it that a team with 10 losses in its last 14 games, battling to hang onto the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, is climbing the rankings?

These rankings aren’t about the present, they’re about the future. And according to Insider’s Future Power Rankings, things look pretty rosy for the Pacers.

Produced by experts Chad Ford and John Hollinger, the rankings project a franchise’s likelihood for success in the next three seasons, and list the Pacers as seventh in the NBA.

Last summer, the Pacers were near the bottom, ranked 26th in the league. They improved to 17th in August and 11th in December. The March rankings show them climbing four more spots.

"Yes, we're saying the Pacers have the seventh-brightest future," the report said, "ahead of teams like the Celtics, Magic and Mavericks."

Though the team has a strong nucleus of young players including Tyler Hansbrough, Paul George, Darren Collison and Roy Hibbert, the key factor in the rankings is money. The Pacers will have unprecedented salary cap space this summer.

"Pacers executives Larry Bird and David Morway have set this team up for future success by drafting well, building depth and staying away from bad contracts," the report said. "Owner Herb Simon is considered one of the best in the business -- despite an unfavorable market and financial situation, he has remained committed to spending the money it takes to be competitive.

"Going into the summer of 2011, the Pacers have the second-most salary cap space, behind only Sacramento, even though the Pacers aren't likely to lose any core players."

The report referred to George as "the steal of the 2010 draft," and praised the development of Hansbrough and Collison, and pointed out some of the cap space undoubtedly will be used to give Hibbert a contract extension.

The report said the Pacers "should be a more legitimate factor in the next three seasons. With the right additions and the development of George, Hibbert, Hansbrough and Collison, Indiana has a shot at being one of the better teams in the East for the next half-decade."

Hansbrough getting noticed

Hansbrough's post-All-Star break surge has attracted some attention from The Worldwide Leader, as well.

Hollinger named the young power forward to his All-2012 Team.

"One thing new Indiana coach Frank Vogel did was give Hansbrough a consistent role, playing him about half the game off the bench at power forward," Hollinger wrote. "That strategy has allowed Hansbrough to play more freely on offense, and he's averaging nearly a point every two minutes on the season and proving adept at drawing fouls. But to be a long-term starter, he needs to raise his shooting percentage."

Hansbrough is working on that. In the last eight games, while averaging 22.4 points, he has shot 56.5 percent from the field.

Murphy's happy landing

Two things you may have missed from last week's 92-80 loss in Boston: the driving reverse dunk by former Indiana forward Troy Murphy, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers' reaction to the stunning move after the game.

Asked if he was surprised by Murphy's dunk, Rivers said, "I think he was surprised. I was worried about him getting hurt coming down, because I don’t think he’s jumped that high in quite some time. It was a slow-motion reverse-dunk. It was terrific."

After spending most of the season in purgatory in New Jersey, it appears Murphy has indeed experienced a happy landing in Boston.

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Dunleavy hopes to contribute to playoff run

March 18, 2011

( Getty Images)

At the time of Mike Dunleavy's injury, it didn't really seem like a game-changer for the Pacers.

They were, after all, deeper at the wing positions than anywhere else on the roster, so there was no shortage of candidates to fill the void.

As it has turned out, however, the Pacers have felt the pain of Dunleavy's absence.

Today marks the four-week point in Dunleavy's recovery from a broken thumb, original forecast as six-to-eight weeks. If it's six, he'll be back for the final two weeks of the regular season. If it's eight, that means waiting until the playoffs, assuming the team qualifies.

"It's just been tough watching in general," Dunleavy said. "I like being out there and this is the best chance I've ever had to make the playoffs and I'd like to be able to contribute. It is a bit agonizing but it is what it is and hopefully I'll be back soon."

In his ninth season, Dunleavy is still waiting for his first playoff experience. He'd like to be back before the postseason but knows he cannot rush the healing process.

"Time is of the essence right now, just waiting for the thing to heal," he said. "I'm going to go back to the doctor in 10 days for another X-ray and update and we'll see what he says.

"I think they're pleased with how I'm doing. The good news is I'm able to stay in shape and keep my legs underneath me so hopefully once I am cleared I'll be able to jump right back into the mix."

In the 13 games Dunleavy has missed, the Pacers have gone 4-9 and the offense has struggled mightily, averaging 97.9 points on 42.9 percent shooting overall and 31.1 percent from the 3-point line. Assists have been way down, to 16.7 per game, in the absence of perhaps the team's best passer.

Interim coach Frank Vogel isn't pointing to Dunleavy's injury as a primary reason for those issues.

"I think it's more a statement on we've been playing better defenses," he said, "and that's slowed us down a little bit."

Credit Vogel for refusing the excuse. But there's no doubt the Pacers have missed Dunleavy – almost as much as he has missed playing.

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George adapting to life as a starter

March 17, 2011

( Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Like most young players entering the NBA, Paul George has spent most of his basketball life as the first option, and has had to adapt to the reality that no longer is the case.

Unlike most young players entering the NBA, George has made the transition relatively seamlessly, which is why he is fitting in so well to the Pacers' starting lineup.

"He's one of those guys you don't have to run a play for and he can still get you 15 a night if he's playing regular minutes," said interim coach Frank Vogel. "That's his focus and that's what he's doing well at."

George had his best offensive game as a starter in Wednesday's 92-80 loss in Boston, scoring 15 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including 3-of-5 from the 3-point line, in 33 minutes. With primary scorers Danny Granger (5-of-16) and Tyler Hansbrough (4-of-14) both struggling and Roy Hibbert limited to 23 minutes by foul trouble, George stepped forward.

With the Pacers trailing 44-31 late in the first half, he made consecutive buckets to start an 11-3 run that cut the deficit to five. He also had a 3-pointer in a brief surge that cut it to 54-50 but the Celtics weren't about to be caught.

"I want to continue to grow and continue to build on the things that I've worked on so far," George said. "I honestly feel I'm nowhere close to being the best I can be right now and that's just my attitude to keep on going. I want to continue to improve so hopefully I can solidify this spot as a starter."

His priorities at the moment are providing energy and defense and he has done both well. Defensively, he has produced at least one steal in 10 straight games, averaging 1.9 in that span. In five starts, he is averaging 2.2 steals. His aggression at times needs to be tempered as he has struggled with foul trouble but that will come with experience.

"I think there may be less shots for him at times but the way he plays, he just plays an aggressive brand of basketball and he's getting his shots," Vogel said. "The area he's getting in trouble right now is he's been too aggressive on the defensive end and fouling too much and that's putting him on the bench. We want him to stay on the court because he can play.

"This is a great chance for him to learn, it's a great experience, it's a good confidence builder and he's earned it. This is not something we're just throwing him in there by default. He's played well, he has a tremendous attitude, he learns and it's a good chance for him."

At shooting guard, George routinely draws daunting matchups, including Boston's Ray Allen, who scored 12 points in 27 minutes. But the rookie doesn't shy away from those challenges. Instead, he craves them.

"I don't dread any matchups," he said. "I look forward to taking on all opponents. I think I held my own against (Dwyane) Wade, did OK against Monta (Ellis), think I got a couple guys under my belt that I did an OK job against to give me confidence to go against some other guys."

Considering the roller-coaster ride of his rookie season – opening the year in the rotation, then heading to the bench for most of November and now emerging as a starter under Vogel – George is happy with his current role, although he plans for its continued evolution.

"Later down the line, hopefully when I'm experienced and know this game pretty well," he said, "I can be that go-to guy."

Maybe then, it will be the opponents that have to make the adjustments.

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Just like that, just in time, they're back

March 16, 2011

Wherever it was the Pacers drifted off to during the past two weeks, whatever was going on in the locker room, on the court, in their hearts and minds, it seems safe to say they've made it back, relatively unscathed.

Those two performances against the Knicks were just like old times -- and by that I mean a month ago, when the Pacers had all that electrifying energy, passion and productivity in weeks immediately following the coaching change, making you think anything was possible.

They were reminiscent of even older times, too.

The Pacers had the Madison Square Garden fans booing the home team in a stunning rout Sunday and then followed up with an even more impressive performance, standing toe-to-toe with an inspired New York team that had revenge on its mind in a thriller that had Conseco Fieldhouse rocking.

Mix in the slender face of the franchise hitting the last-second game-winner and you can be forgiven for having flashbacks to Winning Time.

Ring the bell, baby.

Maybe the initial surge after the coaching change was fueled by fresh air. But the slump-busting belongs very much to Vogel both in mindset and deed. Even when the Pacers were losing to the Timberwolves and Raptors, the young coach insisted he saw signs that things were turning in the right direction.

What seemed misplaced optimism at the time turned out to be prescience.

"Sometimes teams just lose themselves a little bit," Vogel said. "We hit a tough stretch in the schedule that we didn't handle very well. This group isn't comfortable losing games. They don't like losing games and we've got to stay together and that's the biggest thing.

"We all got frustrated with not winning and we forgot the togetherness and how important that is to where we're trying to get."

Vogel tweaked the defensive scheme, adjusting the way they were rotating to open shooters, as opponents were lighting it up from the arc. He opted to remove Lance Stephenson from the rotation, largely because a team battling for a playoff berth has little margin for error and cannot afford investing developmental minutes. That, and using 11 players was disrupting the rotations, chemistry and flow.

He also continued to feed the beast and Tyler Hansbrough has devoured the opportunity, averaging 25.2 points on 62 percent shooting while becoming the first Pacers player this season to score at least 20 in five straight games.

"We hit the bottom," Hansbrough said. "It's been a roller-coaster, it really has. When we lost to Toronto we started coming back and started figuring things out. Then we had a practice in New York and everything just, really competitive and you could see everybody getting back.

"No one in this locker room wants to lose and so it just came down to being tough, competing, getting better and focusing on our defense, which has been crucial."

Even with these two wins over the Knicks, however, the Pacers remain very much on the bubble when it comes to the playoffs. Charlotte is just one-half game behind. Milwaukee is capable of making a late run. Even the Nets have caught fire, winning five in a row, though they're too far back to be considered a legitimate threat.

After three more games against winning teams in the next four days, the schedule turns. Six of the following seven are against sub-.500 teams. Six of the final eight games of the season are at home.

At the very least, the team appears to have regained its focus, energy and chemistry. Opportunity awaits.

"People don't understand that in the locker room we're a laid-back team, joking around with each other, and we still do that," said Roy Hibbert. "But right now we're trying to take care of business.

"We know what put ourselves in a corner and we're trying to fight our way out of it. We want to keep that eighth spot and even move up to the seventh spot if that's possible. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

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Hansbrough still quieting skeptics

March 14, 2011

(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

For a guy not tall enough, not athletic enough, not explosive enough, Tyler Hansbrough seems to be managing fairly well in The Association.

All he did Sunday was carry the Pacers' offense with a career-high 29 points to lead a desperately needed 106-93 victory in New York. That was his fourth straight game of at least 20 points, his ninth straight in double figures.

"Tyler Hansbrough," said Frank Vogel, "is a beast."

When Vogel took over as interim coach 22 games ago and started talking about changing the identity of the team to "smashmouth" basketball, tell the truth: Hansbrough's image was the one that popped into your head. Nothing against Roy Hibbert or Josh McRoberts, but they play more of a vertical game.

Hansbrough is more, well, grounded. He plays where the elbows are chin-high, where the path to the basket must be plowed rather than driven. You know, where mouths are smashed.

When he catches the ball in the lane, you almost hope his first shot gets blocked, because that's when the fun really starts.

It makes you wonder how so many scouts doubted he would succeed in the NBA despite an impeccable college pedigree. But Hansbrough is reminding everyone just exactly why he wasn't just a good college player but the best of his decade.

In the last four games, he has averaged 24.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and shot 59 percent from the field. In case you are particularly skeptical and believe this might be a fluky hot streak, there is more evidence to the contrary. Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 46 percent.

In the process, he's sending a message to the Pacers' front office that their offseason plans might not need to include finding a new starter at power forward.

"I don't know if he's trying to prove anything," Vogel said. "I just think he has a motor that is really unparalleled in this league. Nobody goes harder than that kid. Nobody in the league plays harder than Tyler Hansbrough. Whatever his motivation is, he just goes hard."

That's how a guy who has never been the best athlete on the court somehow manages, as often as not, to be one of the best players.

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Lineup change could bring Pacers to life

March 10, 2011

(Photo via NBA/Getty Images)

This was inevitable, wasn't it?

I mean, how could you keep Tyler Hansbrough out of the starting lineup? The raging bull has been beating at the door for a few weeks now and even the stoutest timber can't withstand that kind of assault.

And didn't you, like me, presume that when Mike Dunleavy went down Paul George would be in the lineup then? Frank Vogel opted to go with Brandon Rush for reasons that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, but George has been headed this way for a while.

And so the young interim coach has made the first major adjustment to his original plan, moving Rush and Josh McRoberts to the second unit to make way for Hansbrough and George.

"I talked to Josh McRoberts and Brandon Rush and it's not specifically anything they've been doing wrong," Vogel said. "They've been playing pretty good basketball. But I feel like we need a change right now and hopefully that'll give us a lift."

The first night out, a 101-75 drubbing in Minneapolis, wasn't exactly what Vogel had in mind but the lineup change could hardly be faulted.

The first unit as previously constructed simply wasn't working. In their four-game losing streak, the Pacers have been outscored 125-93 in the first quarter. The starters have been outscored 330-244 in the last five.

A bench, no matter how productive, can only be reasonably asked to do so much.

Even in defeat, Hansbrough and George offered glimpses that their energy just might be what the Pacers ordered.

Hansbrough had his fifth double-double of the season (21 points, 10 rebounds) and for much of the first half was all the Pacers had, offensively. He has averaged 21.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in the last three games and 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds since the All-Star break. Those are starter's numbers.

George battled foul trouble and struggled to get into the offensive flow but both he and Hansbrough showed excellent activity defensively, coming up with three steals each.

It will take a minute for these two to become fully enmeshed with the other starters but ultimately this change will serve the Pacers well.

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It's March and Pacers are on the bubble

March 9, 2011

(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

March is all about madness, the bubble and Cinderella for Clark Kellogg.

And he does some work in college basketball, too.

Though he is schedule to work just two Pacers games this month (tonight in Minnesota and March 21 at New Jersey) because of his duties as the lead analyst for coverage of the NCAA Tournament on CBS, Kellogg will remain very much in touch with this NBA bubble team in Indianapolis.

"Vacillating between a couple of Pacers games and the tournament is not a real major difficulty because I've done it the last 15-16 years and I only get to do a couple of Pacers games during the month of March and when I do it's kind of nice to step into the NBA," he said. "I love the madness, don't get me wrong, but it's kind of nice to have a little break."

The Pacers are immersed in their own version of March madness, a month that brings 18 games in 30 days and three road trips of three games – the second of which commences tonight in Minneapolis. They are trying to become something of a Cinderella story in the NBA by turning their season around under interim coach Frank Vogel.

With four losses in a row and six in seven games, the Pacers have reduced their margin for error as they try to hold onto the eighth playoff spot in the East. Kellogg believes the biggest key for cracking the bracket lies in tightening up the defense.

"They've got to become a better defensive team and that's hard to do when you're practice time is so limited and the games are coming fast and furious against really good opponents," he said. "That's the kind of adversity you have to work through to be a playoff team. When you have to do it mid-stream on the fly, it's hard when you don't have the benefit of training camp and practice time. You're trying to build a foundation while the house is moving and that's just a hard thing to do."

The Pacers have yielded an average of 112.8 points in their current four-game skid that included a players-only meeting in the aftermath of a particularly frustrating loss in Houston.

"It's going to take guys staying together, which has not always been the strength of our group recently," Kellogg said. "Darren Collison has struggled with his game as he has adjusted and dealt with opponents that have been a tough matchup for him in terms of the size and physicality of some of the point guards we've faced recently.

"So defensively they've got to be better and offensively they just have to be committed to sharing the ball and playing together."

In the midst of a 15-game span that brings just four home games, the Pacers must cherish those opportunities at Conseco Fieldhouse. They dropped a 110-100 home decision to Philadelphia Tuesday night and are 17-15 at home. They're trying to extend a streak of 21 consecutive seasons with a winning record at home, the longest in the NBA.

"You've got to take care of home," Kellogg said. "I mean, home court wins are now essential and critical because the road is going to be brutal. That puts even more pressure on being able to handle the home court with a young, developing, in-transition team that is trying to grab something we haven't had our arms around for four or five seasons."

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Kellogg expects "wild ride" in NCAA tourney

March 8, 2011

With the approach of Selection Sunday, Clark Kellogg shifts gears. The Pacers' Vice President of Player Relations and TV analyst immerses himself in college basketball in preparation for his role as the lead analyst for CBS and its coverage of the NCAA Tournament.

He expects March Madness to live up to its moniker.

"I'll be surprised if it isn't a wild ride," Kellogg said. "I'll be surprised if we don't have some topsy-turvy turbulence as we navigate our way through this thing."

Indiana programs should figure prominently in the tournament. Purdue and Notre Dame both could be highly seeded. Butler, even without a win in tonight's Horizon League tournament championship game, will have to fight its way up from the bottom half of the bracket but has the experience and confidence of last year's run to the title game.

What will it take for Purdue to make a deep run?

"Their stars, meaning JaJuan Johnnson and E'twaun Moore, have to be up to par and maybe occasionally beyond par in their performances," Kellogg said. "Lewis Jackson has to be good, which he's been most of the last 10 games or so in running the show and being a good on-ball defender and making decisions.

"And then the role-players have to contribute in a positive way. That's really what Purdue can control and if those things are in place then they've got a chance in a year where there's not really a dominant team out there, they've got a chance to make a deep tournament run."

With Tyler Hansbrough's younger brother Ben emerging as perhaps the leading candidate for Big East player of the year, Notre Dame has put together a surprisingly strong year and like Purdue harbors legitimate hopes of a No. 2 or 3 seeding.

"I've enjoyed watching them play," said Kellogg of the Irish. "They're a tight-knit group, they're tough-minded. Hansbrough has been fantastic. But everybody's contributed. They're athletic and versatile – they're a good, solid basketball team that can really shoot it so that makes them dangerous.

"It's a bit surprising that they've fared as well as they have but there's no reason to think they can't continue to do that. And there's also reason to think they could get stopped early which is the case for a lot of the field this year."

Given up for dead a few weeks ago after a loss to Youngstown State, Butler hasn't lost since and is very much in the tournament picture regardless the outcome of tonight's game against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"I think, personally, there's been enough done there for them to be in the tournament. I think they're in pretty good, solid shape," Kellogg said. " Certainly, they've got enough pieces. (Matt) Howard is experienced, Shelvin Mack's a really good player and they've got some other pieces that are solid so it becomes about matchups.

"We know they've got a coach that knows how to get ready and they've got kids that will play hard so I would not completely sleep on them if they're in the field."

Though Kansas and Ohio State are obvious No. 1 seeds, Kellogg doesn't see any team entering the tournament as a dominant favorite, which opens the door to the possibility of surprises.

"There's not a dominant team out there," he said. "Any of these teams -- Arizona, Butler, Notre Dame, UConn, Washington if they get in, Kansas State, Florida, Syracuse – there are a lot of teams that could put together a four-game run and get to Houston.

"That's the reality. Even Ohio State, Kansas, they look to me to be the two best teams but they're not significantly better than the rest of the field."

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Players believe they'll respond to adversity

March 7, 2011

Facing their first major adversity since the coaching change, Pacers players said they cleared the air Monday and are ready to respond heading into a vital matchup with Philadelphia Tuesday in Conseco Fieldhouse.

"I think we're OK," said Danny Granger. "You've got to expect sometimes you're going to have disagreements, people are going to argue. You've just got to control it and move on.

"Arguing doesn't necessarily mean you don't have leadership on a team. It means you have a difference of opinion. You play a long basketball season you're going to have differences of opinion. It's a matter of everybody getting on the same page and coming together to get wins.

" … It probably happens in every locker room at some point, you have players-only meetings to get things resolved. You don't want to overreact but we do have to get back on track."

After the Pacers were routed 112-95 in Houston on Saturday night, reporters in the hallway outside the locker room could hear voices being raised behind closed doors. After a day off at home on Sunday, the players met Monday morning.

"It's always a good thing to have conversations amongst each other," said Darren Collison. "Sometimes you need to clear the air and let each other know what their responsibilities are. It's nothing negative, it's positive and it's going to help us get better.

"We always have the right attitude. This team has done a good job with chemistry this year. We've just had a little slump and we have to look at some of the things we did wrong individually, we've got to look ourselves in the mirror and get back to work."

The Pacers started out 7-1 after interim coach Frank Vogel replaced Jim O'Brien on Jan. 30 but have dropped seven of 10 since. They're one game ahead of Charlotte in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East but trail seventh-place Philadelphia (32-30) by five games.

"One thing you can say about our guys is they do not like losing," said Vogel. "They are very much focused on making the playoffs and they're not satisfied losing three in a row. Guys are mad at how they played, mad at themselves. The chemistry is still very strong, they're just not happy we did not win at least one of those three games."

Even with their recent slump, the Pacers have maintained their playoff position. The challenge now is to strengthen it in the 20 games that remain in the regular season.

"We're a playoff team but we had a little bump in the road," said Roy Hibbert. "Every team goes through it and we're just going to have to deal with adversity."

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Stephenson hits the ground running

March 4, 2011

Each game, we're seeing a little more. And each game, he's showing a little more.

The whole idea behind the plan to develop Lance Stephenson is to move carefully, cautiously. Don't give him too much responsibility right away. Let him get his feet wet, get a taste of the NBA and see how it digests.

Of course, it appears Stephenson had his own plan: hit the ground running and see where it leads.

In his third NBA appearance, Stephenson was the Pacers' best player with 11 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes in a 113-89 loss to Oklahoma City. He got to the basket at will, made a couple of seeing-eye passes and generally used his rare combination of size, strength, quickness and agility to full advantage.

At least on the offensive end. Defense, well, I believe the code phrase these days is "work in progress."

"He’s doing better than I expected he would, just from a standpoint of nerves, anxiety, never having been in it," said Frank Vogel. "He's just a basketball player. Everyone who knows him that's what they said. He's a gamer.

"(It's) just a matter of calming his adrenaline down and getting used to being out there and that's what we're going to do each game, we're going to get him some minutes."

Stephenson thus far has totaled 34 minutes, 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Makes you wonder what he might produce once he figures out what he's doing.

Of course it is far too early to draw conclusions. But it's never too soon to try to look down the road and see exactly how Stephenson might factor into the plan. Be assured, though, he does factor into the plan.

"He's a terrific talent. He's a top-tier talent," said G.M. David Morway. "He's very young, he's just learning how to play the game. When he played in high school and even last year at Cincinnati the ball had to be in his hands. So he's having to learn not only to play without the basketball but he's also having to learn how to play defensively. …

"But he is a great talent. He has great size, he can handle, he sees the floor, he's got great instincts on the court and he can score. He's going to play and we're going to see where he fits in. We know he fits in the future."

For the present, it'll be fun watching this talent begin its evolution toward becoming a player.

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Tyler proud of "little" brother Ben's Irish career

March 2, 2011

If you want to make Tyler Hansbrough's face light up and his chest swell with pride, don't ask him about how well he has played lately.

Ask him about his little brother.

OK, Ben Hansbrough isn't exactly little. He's a 6-3, 203-pound point guard for Notre Dame and a leading contender for Big East Player of the Year. But big brother is 6-9, 250 and the former national college player of the decade, so by this family's standards, it fits.

Ben Hansbrough Photos
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Tyler had the rare opportunity to watch Ben play live on Monday in South Bend and saw quite a show. Ben scored 30 points, hitting 7-of-10 from the 3-point line, as the Irish blasted Villanova 93-72 on senior night in Purcell Pavilion.

"I was just happy for him," said Tyler. "Honestly, I can't believe he's done with college basketball. I've seen him play a little bit and I was thinking how different it's going to be. I enjoy watching Carolina but there's nothing like watching your brother play. It's going to be different. I'm not going to be into that much college basketball anymore – unless Carolina's playing."

Since transferring from Mississippi State after the 2006-07 season, Ben's game took off. With averages of 18.4 points, 4.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds – not to mention a .437 percentage from the 3-point line – he has emerged as a driving force behind Notre Dame's remarkable season. The Irish, 23-5, are ranked No. 8 nationally in The Associated Press poll.

Though separated by just a couple of hours, Tyler hasn't had many openings in his NBA schedule to see his brother play. To be free to watch his final regular-season game was a real occasion.

"I've seen him probably play live four or five times the past two years, so it was special," Tyler said. "I was happy for him because he was playing so well. I'm a proud brother."

Though both Tyler and Ben are known for their toughness and competitive spirit, both look up to oldest brother Greg for inspiration in that department. When Greg was 7 years old, doctors discovered what they thought was an inoperable brain tumor.

Not only did he survive the life-threatening surgery, he regained full motor skills and ultimately developed into a top-flight distance runner.

"Greg's gone through more than anything we could ever imagine," Tyler said. "Seeing what he's been through and how he's overcome brain cancer, that's something we can never touch."

The brothers share a tight bond formed through years of typical rough-housing. OK, maybe not so typical, considering these are Hansbroughs we're talking about. Tyler and Ben won two Missouri state championships as teammates on the Poplar Bluff Mules.

"It was one of those relationships where maybe you fight but at the end of the day you go home and you're still friends," Tyler said. "He'd say anything to me and I'd say anything to him. If I wasn't playing good he'd be the first person to tell me and if he wasn't playing good I'd be the first person to tell him. That's the type of relationship we had.

"We're both funny. Off the court we like to goof around but on the court we're serious and pretty competitive. A lot of people like to compare our toughness. We're tough guys because we like to win. We're competitive."

Though scouts aren't completely sold on Ben's future as an NBA prospect – if he lights it up in the NCAA Tournament, he might climb into the picture as a possible second-rounder – Tyler has no doubts.

"Nowadays, it seems like people are drafting more on pure athleticism and I think the trend is you're seeing more players that can play go out and get the job done," he said. "Ben's athletic and he can do a lot of things, but he can play. He's a pretty good player so we'll see what happens. I hope he gets a shot."

Now that would be big.

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Pacers begin their own March madness

March 1, 2011

There is March madness, and there is this.

Eighteen games in 30 days, 11 on the road. Six sets of back-to-backs. A stretch that brings 10 of 13 on the road, including three road trips of three games apiece.

Never in 34 NBA seasons have the Pacers played more games in a month. Only twice before have they faced as many. Once was March 2006. The other was in April 1999, when the schedule was compressed by the lockout.

"It's a brutal month of March," said Frank Vogel.

"Not happy about it, obviously," said Danny Granger.

It begins tonight with a home game against Golden State, a game taking on must-win overtones, rare in March.

When it ends, the Pacers will not only have burgeoning frequent-flyer accounts, they will have a much clearer vision of the playoff picture. At 26-32, they are clinging to eighth in the East, one-half game ahead of Charlotte (26-33).

The Bobcats have 15 games this month, eight on the road, and just three sets of back-to-backs. Like the Pacers, they face five opponents currently at .500 or better.

Some (including me) thought the Bobcats were waving the white flag on the playoff race by dealing away Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline but their play since has offered no evidence of pending surrender.

"It's going to be a tough stretch for us, a lot of road games against some good teams," said Granger. "It's definitely going to be a challenge."

It also is an opportunity. Teams can strengthen their bond on the road. Adverse circumstances can bring a team together. Roy Hibbert, for one, is not about to enter March with his head down.

"We come into practice every day and get prepared," he said. "I feel that even if we have a tough schedule, this is what we do and we've got to make the best of it."

In truth, the team is fairly well set up to ride out this storm. Vogel has done a nice job distributing the minutes, so much so that only twice in 14 games has any player posted more than 40 – and that was when Granger and Hibbert barely exceeded that number in the overtime loss to Detroit.

The challenge will be continuing to implement changes to the defensive schemes while keeping the offense tight with virtually no practice time.

"The fact we're playing nobody more than 36 minutes regularly and most guys under 30 minutes regularly, I think that is going to carry us through the month of March," Vogel said. "That and we've really got to focus in on film sessions and learn off the basketball court and grow and improve off the basketball court.

"Every time we would normally have an off day we're going to have a mental sharpening day, we're going to rest their legs, get in the film room, learn and grow that way."

In like a lion. Out like a lion.

Time to roar.

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