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The World Snarls and Vogel Smiles

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 23, 2013, 5:39 PM

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MIAMI – Fresh off the bus at American Airlines Arena where his team would conduct practice on Thursday, Frank Vogel walked into the teeth of the customary playoff media horde, all poised on the court with recorders, cameras and boom mikes to dissect his what-did-you-know-and-when-did-you-know-it moment from the night before.

Game 1 had not ended well for Vogel or his team, which let would have been a monstrous victory slip through its grasp allowing LeBron James layups on Miami's final two possessions in overtime of a 103-102 loss—a loss that could easily have been a victory if the Pacers had done just one of a hundred or so things better.

Vogel was the one squarely in the cross-hairs, however, the toast of Twitter, message boards and talk radio. His decision to pull his center, Roy Hibbert, the player regarded by many as the best rim protector in the NBA, for the possessions that led to James' layups defied logic and was easily debated. Not debated, really, because not many people were taking up Vogel's side. More like doubted.

Vogel's reaction, however, best explains why the Pacers have progressed to the Eastern Conference finals, and represents their best hope for upsetting the Heat. He was as sunny as every other day of this season, conferring for a moment with the team's media relations staff on whether to meet the media right away, or wait until his players had finished. He decided to get on with it.

“How's everybody doing?” he asked cheerfully as reporters rushed to him on the sideline at midcourt, jostling for position.

Vogel talked for more than 15 minutes, taking on all comers, ducking no questions, showing no irritation with the unrelenting theme of the interrogation.

“All I can say is, it was a sound plan,” Vogel said. “When you have five three-point shooters on the court (as Miami did), you need a switching lineup out there with five guys who are great ball containers.”

Has he second-guessed his decision?

No, Vogel said, he evaluates.

Is the criticism unfair?

“It's natural,” he said. “When you make a coaching decision and it doesn't work, you're going to be second-guessed. Part of the business.”

Did his cell phone explode with profane text messages from coaching friends, or the threat of a divorce from his wife?

No, Vogel said, he's received a “ton of support.”

Would he handle it differently next time?

“Stay tuned,” Vogel said, smiling.

For Vogel, the bottom line of the ordeal was this:

“I want to win the championship. And I want these guys here to win the championship. To make a decision that was part of us not winning the game. … you tell your players all the time, if they miss a free throw late in the game, or miss a shot late in the game, it's just one play. That was just one play. You have to move on to the next game. We're ready to move on to Game 2.”

That's Vogel, and that's why the Pacers were as relaxed and confident on Thursday as they had been before Game 1. They seemed more confident, in fact, basing their day-at-the-beach mindset on the fact they had done so many things poorly, and yet still nearly won.

The Pacers gave up 60 points in the paint to Miami, mostly because their perimeter defense was lacking. They failed to get enough loose balls. They committed 20 turnovers. From their perspective, it wasn't as if they had taken their best shot and come up short against a better team. It felt more like they had beat themselves.

Besides, there were more definite failures on those final, fateful layups than Hibbert not being on hand to try to distract them. George Hill and Paul George were out of position and badly beat off the dribble on James' respective, direct-line dashes to the basket, and nobody provided help defense at the basket.

“Our defense is not designed for one guy to carry the burden of responsibility,” David West said. “We could have done a better job of helping out. We don't like leaving our guys out there on an island, so to speak.”

Every failure in Game 1 has been turned into a positive by Vogel, and the players appear to have bought in. Stop doing this, and you can win. Stop doing that, and you can win. Simple as that.

“You watch it on film and it's true,” Paul George said. “We didn't do the things we had done all year long. So it's encouraging for us.”

There's something else keeping the Pacers calm and carrying on. They won Game 2 here last year. And while they have been careful not to say anything that might rile the Heat, they see vulnerabilities they can exploit.

“We feel like we've been here before,” George said.

So, yes, logically or not, they are more confident than ever they can beat the Heat. Vogel's mindset had been ingrained in the players long before now, and was merely reiterated on Thursday.

“We weren't down in the locker room after the game,” West said. “We immediately started the conversation about Game 2. Guys to a man realized there are things we can do in Game 2 to make sure we give ourselves a better opportunity to win.”

And then it was time to go. Practice was about to begin, and the Pacers were moving on.