Indiana Pacers head coach Vogel said Tuesday he thought rest for nagging injuries represented an important piece of fixing what ails his reeling club, who have lost five of their last six games, eight of their last 11, and 12 of their last 19, sparking all sorts of analysis, exploration and commentary on what's caused Indy's free-fall from 40-12 historical defensive juggernaut to 13-13 worst-non-Sixers offense in the NBA.
“[Rest is] not the whole solution, but I think it’s part of it," Vogel told reporters after giving his starting five a break from practice, which came one day after he'd canceled practice entirely following the Pacers' embarrassing Sunday blowout loss to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
Vogel evidently believes rest is a pretty big part of the solution, because he's decided to take the fairly drastic step of giving his entire starting five — All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert, veteran power forward David West, mercurial shooting guard Lance Stephenson and steady point man George Hill — the night off for Wednesday's matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks.
“The starters are not going to play tonight, all five of them,” Vogel said after shootaround. “We’re going to rest them and try to heal up some various bumps and bruises involved with all five guys.
“We’re not playing well as a basketball team right now and the starters aren’t playing well. Our bench is not playing well. We want to try to get the starters on track by getting their legs back under them and getting them healed up.”
(Credit where it's due: CBSSports.com's Matt Moore floated this idea a week ago. We don't know if Vogel had his eyes on Eye on Basketball, but it looks like he ended up seeing things the same way as Moore did in the long run.)
George, whose individual offensive game has slipped to the point where Indianapolis residents have begun combing online lost-and-found marketplaces in search of answers, praised the night off as "a great decision" that both affords the starters some rest and gives the Pacers' juggled and jumbled second unit a chance to "get some rhythm." It's certainly an opportunity that the reported replacement lineup — Donald Sloan at the point, Evan Turner and Rasual Butler on the wings, Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi up front — hasn't gotten very frequently to date. The Sloan-Turner-Butler-Scola-Mahinmi unit has logged all of 11 minutes over the space of four games this season, according to NBA.com's lineup data, and has been outscored 29-9 in those 11 minutes.
That small-sample group's struggles point toward the larger problems that have faced Vogel whenever he's turned to his bench. Team president Larry Bird and general manager Kevin Pritchard made a point of retooling Indy's punchless reserve corps this offseason, but the results have been dismal, to say the least — the Pacers have gotten the league's third-lowest number of points per game from their bench this year, according to HoopsStats.com.
The nearly-34-year-old Scola has looked largely lead-legged. Danny Granger offered relatively little in his return from injury before being shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers, while his replacement, Turner, has struggled to acclimate to Indy's schemes on both ends of the floor since coming over. Mahinmi remains a limited offensive player, and Indy's crack at adding some offensive firepower in the middle — the Andrew Bynum gambit — didn't work. Chris Copeland's defensive shortcomings have earned him the same spot outside Vogel's rotation that he once occupied with Mike Woodson's New York Knicks. The one bit of good second-unit-related news to which the Pacers can point is that injured backup point guard C.J. Watson is expected to return Wednesday after nearly a month on the shelf with a strained right hamstring, though he'll likely see only limited minutes against Milwaukee, meaning it'll largely be Sloan's show, for better or worse.
And yet Vogel will still give his top guns the night off, despite the Pacers entering Wednesday just a half-game behind the Miami Heat for the top overall spot in the Eastern Conference, thanks to a timely Tuesday block by Mason Plumlee. A Pacers victory and another Heat loss — Miami takes on a Memphis Grizzlies team fighting for its postseason life at the bottom of the brutal Western Conference bracket and that has beaten the Heat four of the last five times LeBron and company have visited the Grindhouse — puts Indiana right back on top of the East heading into their fourth and final showdown of the year on Friday night.
Vogel said Wednesday that the pursuit of the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs — the prize for which the Pacers have played since losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Heat in Miami last June — remains important to Indiana. But the coach feels the Pacers have more immediate matters to address, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:
"Look, we spent all year with one goal [but at] some point you've got to shift your focus when things aren't going your way," Vogel said. "You [can't] pay attention to what everybody else is doing. Fixing your team [is] the only thing that's on our minds right now. We'll do this tonight. The plan for the starters was two days off [Monday and Tuesday], shooting and conditioning today.
"They'll practice tomorrow and they'll all play in Miami. We may rest some bench guys against Miami. The thought process behind all five guys is, if you sit one or two guys per game then nobody ever finds a rhythm. Finding a rhythm is just as important as getting our guys rest, [that's] part of the solution. So they'll rest this game and they'll all play together and look to find the rhythm Friday night." [...]
"The way we've been playing over the last month is concerning. The way we played against Atlanta was disturbing and something needs to be done. We're going out to try to win this basketball game. We still have our sights on the No. 1 seed but the most important thing for our team is fixing our team and this is a plan to try and do that."
How effective a plan it will be remains to be seen, but despite claims that the Pacers' claims of late-season fatigue are little more than a copout, there's reason to believe the starting five's breaking down from overuse. All five Pacers starters rank in the top 61 in total minutes played this season, with George (No. 6 at 2,823 minutes) leading the way and Hibbert (No. 61 at 2,331) bringing up the rear. No five-man unit in the NBA has logged more minutes than George-Hibbert-West-Stephenson-George this season; only the Oklahoma City Thunder's logged more minutes last season. (There's a reason for this — that unit has been, before this stretch, an absolute wrecking crew.)
When you factor in postseason workload, as Tim Donahue of the great Pacers blog 8 Points, 9 Seconds did, the Pacers have played more games than any other team since the beginning of the 2012-13 regular season, and the Pacers' starters have borne a far heavier burden than the starting fives of title contenders like the Heat, Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets.
So Vogel's "get some rest" plan makes sense, right? Well, maybe, but maybe not. More from Donahue:
[...] there is ample support for the idea that The Five — the core of this team’s success — is facing some issues related to cumulative effects of all of these minutes. In fact, it’s almost irrefutable that The Five has shouldered one of — if not the — heaviest workloads in the NBA over the past two seasons.
However, fatigue is neither their only problem, nor is it the root of their problems. Rest alone will not cure what ails them. The Pacers have had problems with execution — primarily offensively — for quite some time now. A good portion of that is simply discipline. Further, as that has continued, it has created some undeniable frustration and public friction among the members of the team. These are both much bigger problems than simply being tired.
[...] Vogel’s team desperately needs the practice time — so rare at this stage of the season — to address their problems with execution. However, it’s worth remembering that practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. While full practices offer great opportunities to work on flaws, bad practices could move the team even further backward. Resolving their recent woes requires a great deal of focus — both mentally and physically. Tired bodies are undeniably obstacles to crisp execution. Tired minds are equally detrimental to being able to work and play well with others.
Given the evident on-court awkwardness the Pacers have displayed over the past two months — the missed passes, the missed rotations, the limp screens, the aimless off-ball meandering, etc. — taking some time to refresh isn't the least sensible thing in the world, especially against a Bucks team that's managed a 9-29 record at home and that has ranked second-worst in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency at home. While they haven't been quite as desperate as you might think of late — Milwaukee's actually been in the middle of the NBA pack in points scored per possession since the All-Star break — their defense continues to rank among the league's very worst, which could be just what the doctor ordered for the Pacers' dismal scoring attack.
If it's not, though — if the Pacers continue to look desperate on both ends of the floor against arguably the worst team in the NBA with their top talent in street clothes as a full claw of healthy scratches on a night where they could have taken back control of the Eastern Conference — then Vogel will find himself in for a mammoth amount of second-guessing and armchair quarterbacking. It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for him.
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