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Pacers Seeking Clarity

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 2, 2013, 3:50 PM

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All the Pacers know for sure is that they're playing in Atlanta on Friday, with a chance to close out their first-round playoff series against the nesting Hawks. Beyond that? They have no idea where they're headed next, who they're playing or how they're going to try to play.

That's the NBA playoffs for you. Chaos, uncertainty, and constant tweaking. And that's just the part about packing your bags.

The Pacers flew out of Indianapolis on Thursday afternoon, hoping to break a bad habit at Philips Arena. They haven't won there since December of 2006, so long ago that Danny Granger was a rookie, Paul George was a junior in high school, and Frank Vogel was an advance scout for the Washington Wizards, between gigs as an assistant coach for Jim O'Brien.

Vogel isn't the type to rely on superstition to end his team's 13-game losing streak. The Pacers will stay in the same hotel as they did for those double-figure losses in Games 3 and 4, and there were no reports of anyone packing good luck charms. They don't have that luxury, because they had to pack for the possibility of an extended trip that wouldn't bring them home until after a game in New York on Tuesday.

Should the Pacers and Knicks both close out their series on Friday, they will meet for old time's sake on Sunday to open a second-round series at Madison Square Garden, and then play again on Tuesday. Should the Pacers lose on Friday, they return home after the game to prepare for Game 7 against the Hawks on Sunday. Should the Pacers win and New York loses, they return home and get a few days of relief before beginning Round 2 against either the Knicks or Boston.

It's confusing, but better than most alternatives in the NBA this time of year.

“Just part of being in the playoffs,” Vogel said Thursday, before heading to the airport.

Winning in Atlanta, and therefore bringing some clarity to their lives, will require the Pacers to transport much of the strategy and energy they mustered in Wednesday's 106-83 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Vogel pushed the right buttons, utilizing Jeff Pendergraph at small forward to defend the Hawks' leading scorer, Josh Smith, in the second quarter, and went with a three-guard lineup the second half of the second and third quarters. Those shifts freed David West and Paul George, who scored 24 and 21 points, respectively, and enabled them to play at a faster tempo rather than grinding out their offense.

Vogel doesn't believe he has the luxury of leaving well enough alone. He knows the Hawks will play better in Atlanta, and expects Smith to play more than the 26 foul-burdened minutes he got in on Wednesday. How much more does a coach tinker, however, after his most recent changes helped produce his team's best performance of the series?

“You always feel like you can play better,” Vogel said. “You're always making adjustments every game whether it's playing different players or using players in different ways. We'll look at the tape and study it and find ways to improve on this performance.”

Despite all the uncertainties, this is the best time of the season for the players. The games come quickly and fatigue is a constant issue, so practices are limited. The Pacers only on-floor activity on Tuesday was some shooting, and they did nothing on Thursday. The plan was to gather to watch more video after arriving in Atlanta.

George, who turned 23 on Thursday, has young legs, but still appreciated having time away from the court. He was the only player not to participate in Tuesday's shooting session, opting to remain in the training room for cold baths and massage.

“At times you can be out of gas,” he said following Wednesday's game. “It's good that Coach is aware of that.”

The Pacers will need all the energy they can gather to win in Atlanta, where they shot a combined 33 percent from the field in Games 3 and 4 and won just one of the eight quarters. Strategies can improve shooting percentages, and so can fresh legs and confidence. They can't fake confidence, however, in a place they've never won, so they'll have to rely on minds and legs to break the spell.

Can they do it? Finally?

“We hope,” George said. “That's the best thing we can say is, we can hope. We have to go down there and play how we're playing at home. It's easy to say, but that's really the key. We have to bring the energy. Shots are going to fall if we play with energy and get ourselves easy looks.”

For now, that's the closest thing they have to a certainty.

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