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Matchups Causing Dilemma for Pacers

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 25, 2014

The Pacers are a better team than Atlanta, but not when 40 percent of their starting lineup isn't contributing. So now, with his team trailing its first-round playoff series 2-1, Frank Vogel has the greatest dilemma of his young coaching career.

What do you do about Roy Hibbert and George Hill?

Especially Hibbert.

What do you do with a 7-2, 280-pound center—an All-Star no less—who has become invisible? Do you bench him and risk destroying whatever shreds of confidence he has left for the rest of the playoffs, if you manage to survive the first round? Or, do you keep rolling him out and hope that he somehow shakes the demons that have haunted him for the past six weeks? Do you stick with the lineup that owned the NBA's best record through much of the first half of the season, and won 56 games? Or do you make a bold move to try to win the season's biggest game on Saturday?

Hibbert has struggled too long for it to be called a slump. It's in his head now, in a big way. Vogel acknowledged that his center is “struggling with his confidence,” but also refused to commit to taking him out of the starting lineup.

“We'll look at everything,” Vogel said. “But I have confidence in Roy Hibbert. He hasn't played well in this series to this point, but I have great confidence in him.”

Pressed on the issue, Vogel said: “We're not going to quit on him, I know that.”

Whether Hibbert starts or not isn't that big of a concern. It's how long Vogel stays with him when he's struggling. Hibbert played just 19 minutes on Thursday, one less than his backup, Ian Mahinmi. The Hawks present an impossible matchup for him defensively, and if he can't score he has little to offer. If he only rebounded and defended the lane, he'd be the role player the Pacers need, but he's not doing that, either.

Hibbert grabbed 16 rebounds in the season-opening win over Orlando, and hasn't matched that since. His rebound total reached double figures in 10 of the first 20 games, and he had eight or more in five of the others. But, he's grabbed 10 or more rebounds in just seven of the last 39 games, none in the playoffs.

The Pacers got a spark when Vogel went small on Thursday, with power forwards David West and Luis Scola playing together. They provided perimeter scoring threats, which opened the lane for Lance Stephenson and Paul George to penetrate, and the defense was no worse off.

Hill presents another challenge for Vogel. He hit just 1-of-11 shots on Thursday, and was guilty of a crucial turnover and defensive lapse late in the game. Hill's a point guard who admits he doesn't really want to be a point guard, and is usually at his best when he's playing off-guard. He's not assertive by nature, and seems to have to remind himself constantly to be aggressive.

Vogel went with Hill and C.J. Watson together to close out Game 2 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which freed Hill to score 15 second-half points. The two only played together for the final 8:23 of the first quarter on Thursday, though, and that was forced by Paul George picking up his second foul. The Pacers moved from a 7-2 deficit to a tie at 24. Playing them together leaves Stephenson on the bench, though, which wasn't an option in Thursday's game, when Stephenson was the team's best player.

Despite lack of production from their center and point guard, the Pacers stayed in touch with the Hawks until the final minutes on Thursday. They trailed by four on Stephenson's three-pointer with 7:41 left, and had the ball for a precious second or two moments later, but Stephenson was called for being out of bounds after grabbing a rebound and falling – a questionable call, the replay showed. Watson then fouled Kyle Korver's three-pointer, which was converted to a four-point play. Instead of a four-point deficit and possession, the Pacers trailed by eight.

They got within four again with 6 ½ minutes left, and had a chance to get within three moments later if Watson's three-pointer had fallen. Hill replaced Watson with 5:35 remaining, but made two key blunders. His turnover led to Jeff Teague's layup and a nine-point deficit with 4:46 left, and he lost Korver in transition to allow a game-clinching three-pointer with 1:40 remaining.

Hibbert and Hill – both of whom scored four points in the game – were hardly the only factors in the loss. The effort wasn't playoff caliber, proven by the difference in free throw attempts. Atlanta had 37, the Pacers had 21. George, although producing his third double-double of the series, hit just 3-of-11 shots, and wasn't the defensive force he had been in Game 2.

It's easy to call for a new starting lineup, or for benching starters altogether. The best coaches, though, avoid over-reaction, and the ever-upbeat Vogel has done that well throughout his time with Pacers. This, however, is the most desperate circumstance he's faced. He says he loves the chess match of coaching in the playoffs, but another loss on Saturday puts him in danger of checkmate.

He has to figure a way out. And he might have to do it without two key pieces.

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