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Pacers Still Figuring Things Out

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 10, 2012

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Frank Vogel calls it a "still-figuring-things-out-kind-of-mode," which is as good a way as any to describe what the Pacers are going through.

Their 89-85 victory over Washington at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday night ended a three-game losing streak, but wasn't thorough enough to qualify as the start of a turnaround. It came over a winless team, although one that has consistently played hard, and Roy Hibbert's struggles remain perplexing. But the lack of style points can be forgiven, being that it was their fourth game in six nights and came in the setting that is usually the most difficult for an NBA team—the first home game after a week-long road trip.

Where are they? Who are they? Where are they headed? With Danny Granger's absence still posing an essay question to be answered long-term, it's too soon to know.

They did have an improved sense of urgency against the Wizards, inspired in part by the nature of Friday's loss at Minnesota. Gerald Green let Chase Budinger escape for a simple layup off an inbounds pass with 0.8 seconds remaining after the Pacers had tied the game on George Hill's step-back three-pointer. Every game in the NBA is the prelude to a new chapter. Extreme frustration often leads to improvement, and satisfaction leads to an eventual downfall.

"I just made a careless mistake," said Green, who scored 15 points off the bench. "Just a stupid mistake.

"We had a different sense of urgency tonight."

Tyler Hansbrough, especially. He was in full Psycho T mode, leading a 10-0 run early in the fourth quarter that made all the difference, and would have made even more difference if he hadn't missed four straight free throws. His steal in Washington's halfcourt and kamikaze drive to the basket drew a foul and was converted to one-of-two free throws. He followed with another steal, and breakway dunk that tied the game at 75. Green later gave the Pacers a lead they never relinquished with a 15-foot jumper. D.J. Augustin finished off the run with a three-pointer.

The Pacers went on to take a five-point lead, but Hansbrough—who had hit 22-of-25 foul shots entering the game—missed four straight to help keep Washington within shooting range.

Hansbrough's stat line: Six points, six rebounds and two steals, while hitting just four-of-12 free throws. Typically erratic, but effective.

Vogel had adjusted his team's pick-and-roll defense, which set up Hansbrough's steals, which led him to keep Hansbrough in the game longer than originally planned. But that's how it's going to be for awhile with Granger out.

Lance Stephenson got his second career start Saturday, the other coming in the meaningless final game of last season, and responded with 12 points. He hit both of his three-pointers and is now 8-of-17 for the season—a startling development for a guy who had hit 4-of-35 for his career before this season, and just 1-of-11 in the preseason. He's also playing aggressive defense, something that was a vague concept for him coming out of college three years ago.

Vogel also adjusted his rotations, making it a point to keep at least a couple of starters on the floor at all times. Hansbrough, for example, often played with George Hill and Roy Hibbert, while Augustin played with David West and Paul George.

"When Danny went down I knew it would be a little trial and error period," Vogel said. "I expected our bench unit playing together would be a strength for us, but they've struggled.

"We're looking at all of our options."

Further muddling the picture Saturday was the performance of former Pacers backup point guard A.J. Price, who finished with 14 assists and no turnovers. The Pacers made no effort to retain him after last season, his third with the team, but he was superior to the free agent point guard the Pacers signed over the summer, Augustin, who has 17 assists for the season.

But it's early, and confusing. The Pacers are 3-4. Three of their losses have come by a total of six points, which allows them to think they could easily be 6-1. But their other two victories came by two points and in double-overtime, and Saturday's wasn't clinched until George hit two foul shots with 1.2 seconds left. So they're equally close to 1-6.

Building momentum will likely require more from Hibbert, whose struggles continued. He grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, but hit just 3-of-15 shots and committed four turnovers. He's often off-balance, and often picking himself off the floor, too. Through seven games, he's averaging 8.7 points on 38 percent shooting and 7.7 rebounds. He's taken just 11 foul shots, hitting five. The effort is there, but the poise and confidence are not.

Asked before the game if Hibbert is putting too much pressure on himself, presumably as a result of the four-year, $58 million contract, Vogel didn't hesitate: "Absolutely."

"He wants to do great," Vogel added. "He wants to make everybody in this community proud, he wants to earn his contract. He's got a pure heart and he just wants to win."

West agreed, and submitted a vote of confidence.

"He just has to take his time," West said. "We're only seven games into this. He'll find his way, find his rhythm and get rolling."

If so, the team is likely to follow.

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