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."