MIAMI — It is surely unwise to draw firm conclusions from a single game against a thoroughly hapless opponent. But this is what the Indiana Pacers saw Wednesday night in a 104-102 victory in Milwaukee:
- A fluid, formidable second unit, scoring at will.
- A happy starting five, enjoying a rare night off, whooping along the bench.
- An embattled coach, exhaling for a moment, his gambit having paid off.
In the moment, the Pacers appeared unified, not dysfunctional. Capable, instead of offensively impotent. Relieved. Certainly a little cheerier.
Problems solved? The Pacers won't really know until they take the court Friday night against the Heat and might not know for sure until they open the playoffs next weekend. But coach Frank Vogel's decision to rest his starters—after a five-month slog in which they furiously pursued the No. 1 seed, without restraint—appears to have paid at least a short-term dividend.
The Pacers were livelier at practice Thursday, their legs and spirits apparently rejuvenated.
"I was a gazelle, running up and down the court," the 7'2" Roy Hibbert chirped, following a workout on the Heat's practice court. "It's always nice coming down to warm weather."
The sun helps. A three-day break between games helps. The Pacers will embrace any solution and any rationale that helps them move past a calamitous five-week funk that endangered both their unity and their standing atop the Eastern Conference.
Starting on March 4, the Pacers lost 12 of 20 games, dropping them from the No. 1 seed and triggering internal doubts and a level of external scrutiny they had never endured since becoming the darling upstarts of the East.
Everything came into question: the Pacers' maturity, their depth, their chemistry, their leadership. Hibbert called out his teammates for selfish play. Vogel was accused of burning out his starters, in an all-out pursuit of the No. 1 seed. Former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, speaking on ESPN radio, called the Pacers "emotionally fragile."
Incredibly, and largely thanks to the Heat's own late-season wobbles, the Pacers (54-25) slipped back into first place Wednesday night, with a half-game lead over Miami (53-25).
If fatigue was the issue—the Pacers played 18 games in March—then perhaps the strategic benching Wednesday will prove to be the solution.
"I think it's part of the solution," Vogel said Thursday. "How much, who knows? But I definitely think it's part of the solution. There's still a lot of rhythm and timing and execution that needs to improve."
The young Pacers had been on a rollicking joyride for nearly two years, bursting onto the scene with a 42-24 record in 2011-12, taking the Heat to Game 7 in the conference finals last spring and racing to a big early lead in the conference race this season. They seemed poised to make a run at the title.
And now? Now the Pacers may be flirting with disaster, if momentum and history mean anything.
The Pacers had a .769 winning percentage at the All-Star break and have gone 14-13 since. That puts them in the running for one of the five worst post-All-Star records for a team that won at least 70 percent of its games before the break, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The other four teams—Portland in 2001, the New York Knicks in 1954, Portland in 1978 and Seattle in 2005—failed to make the conference finals.
Another way of looking at it: As it stands now, the Pacers have the worst post-break record for a 50-win team since the 2002-03 Detroit Pistons, per Elias. The good news: That Pistons team—which went 18-17 after the break, to finish 50-32—made the conference finals.
"I'm not comfortable with where things are," Vogel said, "but I'm not a believer that if you've won 10 straight going into the playoffs, you're going to have playoff success, and if you lost 10 straight going into the playoffs, you're going to fail. I think we lost five of our last seven last year, and we went on a heck of a run."
"You look at the college basketball tournaments," Vogel added. "Whoever wins the conference tournament usually gets knocked out in the first round. The guys who lose the conference tournament spend that week sort of angry and edgy, and they sharpen themselves. So I think this stretch for us has been a time of sharpening ourselves."
If that sounds like rationalizing and hopeful spin, it probably is. Like his team, Vogel, 40, is still young and largely untested, having inherited the job late in the 2010-11 season. A year ago, Vogel finished fifth in the Coach of the Year balloting. This is the first real crisis he has faced, and by far the most criticism—for the heavy minutes he has demanded of his starters, for an inconsistent bench rotation and for an offense that ranks in the bottom 10.
The Pacers' struggles have invited speculation that team president Larry Bird could push Vogel aside and coach the team himself.
"I'm doing fine," Vogel said through a thin smile. "I believe in this group. I believe in myself. I believe in what we're doing—our system, our culture, our approach. I believe in all of that, very, very strongly. So it's never going to be smooth sailing. I understand that."
Asked about the best advice he's received, Vogel chuckled. "I've gotten a lot of it. I just continue to bring energy, and be me, continue to do what I'm doing. It's been successful."
It was surely a gamble to bench all five starters Wednesday, with playoff seeding and the team's psyche at stake. The move worked, though, relieving pressure all around.
The most encouraging sign, other than the victory itself, was the resurgence of the beleaguered Pacers bench, led by Luis Scola (24 points) and Evan Turner, who flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds and nine assists.
Paul George called it "a learning lesson" for the starters, whose chemistry seemed to be cracking for the last several weeks. "They played the game the right way," he said of the reserves. "They played defense the right way. They were defending, helping one another. Offensively, they kept the game simple and just made plays for one another."
Those remarks sounded like a vague echo of Hibbert's recent concerns about selfish play. But George insisted the Pacers, now properly rested, their minds and bodies sound again, could regain their esprit de corps, along with their dominance.
"We've still got the same chemistry," he said. "Nothing's been broken."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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