One thing I’ve noticed over my years as a basketball fan is this: when a coach feels like his team absolutely must win a game, he will often make a change. It might be a change in rotation or substitution patterns; it might be a change in tactics or game plan. What becomes obvious to the coach, however, is that he knows if his team just goes out and plays “their'” game, they’re going to lose. Purdue’s NCAA tournament games this season were an excellent example of this with Matt Painter playing Hummel at center and forcing St. Mary’s and Kansas to use big men to guard Purdue’s plethora of smaller players. I remember Rick Carlisle starting Austin Croshere at center in a playoff game against Detroit for the same reason. Vogel having Paul George guard Derrick Rose during last year’s playoffs is another example.
When coaches adopt this mentality where every possession of every game becomes more important than their wife’s birthday, I call it “playoff coaching.” We saw a bit of this last night from Frank Vogel against the Knicks, and I loved it. Mike Wells, Bob Kravitz , and Jared Wade have already covered what happened in the game far more adroitly than I could, so we’ll leave the summaries to them. What happened in the fourth quarter last night, I hope, signifies a gestalt change for Vogel and the way he intends to coach this team for the rest of the season.
One of my biggest complaints about Vogel all season has been his scripted substitutions and his unwillingness to deviate too much from a pre-determined rotation. Let’s face it, we all know that somewhere between the six and four minute mark of the first quarter, we’ll hear the buzzer and see George Hill and Tyler Hansbrough walk onto the court while Paul George and David West head to the bench. Most of the time it doesn’t matter if George or West are playing great, their time is up. This pattern largely continues throughout the entire game, though Vogel does occasionally alter it during the fourth quarter when a player’s play or match-ups dictate that he should. I understand that this type of consistent rotation has been a breath of fresh air for the players, who are only a bit over a year removed from the mad-scientist-like rotational scheming of Jim O’Brien, but sometimes it drives me crazy.
Too many times this season we’ve seen teams target specific players and their specific weaknesses while the Pacers have tried to play “their game”. Watching Deron Williams repeatedly post Darren Collison or Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat repeatedly torch Collison and Hibbert’s feeble attempts and pick-and-roll defense while the Pacers have the solutions to these problems either sitting on the bench or playing elsewhere on the court has driven me batty all season. For 3 quarters last night, the situation repeated itself as Carmelo Anthony abused David West and Tyler Hansbrough (27 points in three quarters) – who failed to take advantage of him defensively – while I screamed at my TV. Any Pacer fan knows that the only player on the roster capable of guarding an engaged and motivated Anthony is Danny Granger. Yet for 36 minutes we watched him guard Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields while the team failed, rather spectacularly, to assert its “smash-mouth” style.
Then, in the fourth quarter, everything changed. It may have been a desperation move by Vogel, but instead of the typical 4th quarter line-up (Hill, Barbosa, Jones, Hansbrough, Amundson), Granger walked out onto the floor in Hansbrough’s place. 3 minutes later George subbed in for Jones. Instead of trying to dictate how the game would be played and press a size advantage he didn’t really have, Vogel went small and matched up with the Knicks. We know the end result. Here’s what we learned in the last 12 minutes that we should have known all along: Our four small guys are better than their four small guys.
While I have no conclusive proof that this game represents a lightbulb moment for Vogel, I certainly hope that it does. Bird and Morway have built a versatile roster that has the ability to succeed with many different lineups and styles of play. Last night we saw Vogel take advantage of that versatility in a way that he’s been reluctant to all season. We can only hope that he carries this new found sense of the urgency and importance of every game and every possession with him throughout the rest of the year.
Who knows? Maybe the next time we see Darren Collison getting posted or Hansbrough guarding a ball-handler at the 3 point line, we won’t have to watch it for 36 long and painful minutes.