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Help is on the way to an Indiana Pacers team that made the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Playoff push drives higher expectations for Pacers

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Dec 19 2011 11:02AM

Frank Vogel, at the start, had the substitute teacher-syndrome working in his favor.

When he took over for fired Jim O'Brien for the final 38 games of Indiana's season -- actually, for what turned out to 43 after the Pacers snuck into the playoffs with 37 victories -- the most important thing for Vogel was to be as un-O'Brien-like as possible. O'Brien was old school, demanding and at times inflexible, with a my way-or-highway approach that might have forced his young players to grow up faster but wasn't much fun.

Vogel, by contrast, came in as the good cop, the confidante, a young and upbeat guy who took the pressure off his players and put it squarely on his own shoulders. It paid off: From 17-27 with O'Brien, the Pacers went 20-18 for Vogel, then put a minor scare into the Chicago Bulls in their first-round matchup.

"I was overly positive in the first month or so when I took over," Vogel told the Indianapolis Star as training camp began last week. "That's how I am as a person. I have to coach within my personality and I have to drive these guys.

"They have to understand what an incredible opportunity they have in front of them to take a huge step. We're not looking to take a small step; we're looking to take a huge step as a franchise. All the pieces are in place to do that. They're going to be driven hard and work very hard and held to a high standard to take that huge step."

The same could be said for Vogel, who has made the improbable climb from Division III player to NBA video coordinator to head coach of an Eastern Conference playoff team. An incredible opportunity. A huge step. And now, a higher standard than last spring.

Back then, the Pacers were playing with house money, seeing how far a little talent and some cleared air could take them. They made it to the postseason, a familiar place for the franchise in 16 of 17 seasons from 1990 through 2005. Four disappointing seasons followed, though, with Indiana playing a cumulative 50 games under .500 those years.

"Somebody asked me when I first took over, 'What would it mean to take over and take this team back to the playoffs, where they should be?' " Vogel said this summer, soon after having the interim tag removed from in front of his name. "I likened it to all those scenes in 'Hoosiers' that give you chills. ... That's exactly what it was like."

The challenge now, of course, is for Vogel to do even better against a backdrop of expectations. He still is a young, relatively inexperienced head coach. He's working with a compressed camp and preseason and a scrunched-up schedule that will put practice time at a premium. He has a staff of solid pros -- Brian Shaw, Jim Boylen, Dan Burke -- who nonetheless will be learning how to work together.

And at some point, Vogel will be tested by the players who were so grateful for his promotion last season. Because, well, that's what goes on in the NBA.

The Pacers' greatest strength figures to be their greatest weakness as well: Depth. After forwards David West and Danny Granger, who have been All-Stars, the roster is filled with talented players still eager to make their bones in this league. In the backcourt particularly, Vogel has four or five guys who might think they should be starting.

"What I like about our chances is that I think a lockout-shortened season, where you're playing a lot of games without a lot of practice time, hurts really, really young teams and really, really old teams," Vogel said. "The teams that sort of have a core group that's entering their prime will have the most success this season. We're young, but we don't have a bunch of rookies."

Another test: Fifteen of the Pacers' first 22 games are on the road.

Vogel didn't just let the clock run during the lockout. Beyond studying video at Conseco Fieldhouse, he traveled to consult with several top college coaches -- Indiana's Tom Crean, Purdue's Matt Painter, Butler's Brad Stevens -- to swap ideas and pick brains. Vogel has been flexible and creative from the start, and besides his inspired use of George to guard Rose last spring, he dusted off reserves such as Dahntay Jones and A.J. Price for helpful minutes, too.

From all appearances, Indiana's rookie head coach -- that's a better tag than interim, right? -- is demanding as much of himself this season as he is from his players.

"I want expectations,'' Vogel said. "I want them having the bar set high. This team is capable. We've got pieces in place to do some really special things, to take this league by storm."

The three-step plan

1. George's game grows with him. In the playoff series against Chicago, Paul George was the Pacers' best defender on Derrick Rose. He grew two inches over the lockout. A talented wing and Larry Bird project.

2. David West's gamble pays off. Actually, the Pacers and West gambled on each other, the power forward taking a reasonable two-year, $20 million deal to prove his left knee is sound.

3. Hill pushes Collison. The best-case scenario for Indiana's backcourt will be to use George Hill off the bench at both spots. Time for Collison's game to mature.

Three points

1. Jim O'Brien's 3-point philosophies might have done a disservice to Danny Granger, who finally cut back on his shot attempts from outside the arc (down from 7.1 per game to 5.2).

2. Based on the physical play Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Foster showed in the Bulls series, the Pacers' bench should be postseason ready. "Talk about smash-mouth basketball," Vogel said on media day.

3. Guard Lance Stephenson, talented but in need of refinement and focus, will be a good test case for Vogel as he tries to keep a deep bench happy.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

AT A GLANCE

LAST YEAR: 37-45, 2nd in Central

FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs

2010-11 Regular Season Standings

2010-11 TEAM LEADERS

Danny Granger

20.5 PPG

Roy Hibbert

7.5 RPG

Darren Collison

5.1 APG

2010-11 STATISTICS

  OFFENSE DEFENSE
PPG 99.8 100.9
RPG 43.5 43.3
APG 19.6 20.4
FG % 0.442 0.449
3PT % 0.354 0.359
FT % 0.782 0.750
  Complete 2010-11 Stats 
STARTING FIVE

DARREN COLLISON, POINT GUARD

13.2 PPG | 5.1 APG | 2.8 RPG

Collison is a quick guard who can penetrate the lane, create for his teammates and is a solid defender. Started all 79 games he played during the 2010-11 season.

PAUL GEORGE, SHOOTING GUARD

7.8 PPG | 3.7 RPG | 1.1 APG

The second-year George is a lengthy wing player who can shoot but at times appears passive on the floor. He's also an active defender who averaged a steal per game.

DANNY GRANGER, SMALL FORWARD

20.5 PPG | 5.4 RPG | 2.6 APG

An overall consistent player. Played more games than he had the previous two seasons, but the former All-Star and Indiana's go-to player saw his scoring take a dip.

DAVID WEST, POWER FORWARD

18.9 PPG | 7.6 RPG | .508 FG%

Acquired as an offseason free agent pickup, West brings a formidable frontcourt presence on both ends of the floor. Pacers will use caution as West returns from an ACL injury.

ROY HIBBERT, CENTER

12.7 PPG | 7.5 RPG | 1.8 BPG

Hibbert is among the league leaders in blocks, but immobility forces him into foul trouble. Likes to work away from basket and has decent shooting touch for a player his size.

RESERVES
NAMEHTWTPOSCOMMENT
George Hill6-2180GLocal guy who might spend more time at shooting guard.
Tyler Hansbrough6-9250FEnergy player should benefit from move to second unit.
Dahntay Jones6-6210GShowed under Vogel his value as physical defender.
 Complete Roster 
OFFSEASON MOVES

ADDED: G George Hill, F Louis Amundson, F David West, F-C Jeff Pendergraph

LOST:  F-G Mike Dunleavy, G T.J. Ford, F Josh McRoberts, G Brandon Rush

MAN ON THE SPOT

ROY HIBBERT, CENTER

The buildup that Hibbert got before last season, thanks to an intense summer prep program, had some projecting him as the league's Most Improved Player. Didn't happen as he was inconsistent and his numbers landed about where they had been. Now better days are expected, not just anticipated.

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