(Photo: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports)

Thinking Small, Playing Big

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This Indiana Pacer season has always been about more. It’s been about All-Stars and MVPs and DPOYs and #1 seeds and titles. From the opening tip on October 29, this Indiana Pacer team has been playing for a championship every night. These exact words have come out of Coach Frank Vogel’s mouth on more than one occasion.

That’s terrific, until you realize what that really means.

It means eight months and over 100 games played with a dangerously warped perspective. And it’s this — as much as anything else — that has caught up with the Pacers over the last two months. After 40-plus nights of mythical title tilts, the Pacers seemingly started to look around and ask, “Are we there, yet?”

When the answer was, “No,” the team lost its way.

Now, it seems, the Pacers must think small, if they want to make it big.

“Right now, we’ve got smaller goals, as far as building back up to what our main goal is,” Paul George said after Indiana’s 84-83 victory over the Miami Heat.

It’s a sentiment shared by teammate David West.

“We’re just trying to put together solid games,” said West. “Put together games where our defense is in tact, and offensively, we’re sharing the ball and knowing what we need to do. As long as we continue to do that, we’re going to find ourselves in the mix in most of these games. We’ve just got to continue to figure out ways to win, particularly down the stretch.”

Even Frank Vogel is acknowledging that there are things more important than the one seed. “Obviously, seeding is important, but how you’re playing when you’re going into the playoffs is more important,” Vogel said after the game. “There’s no question about that.”

And this is a team that has not been playing well. The Pacers have rebounded somewhat from their disastrous four-game losing streak, but they have not had the look of champions lately. The defense is there — they’ve allowed less than a point per possession in nine straight games, averaging 94.5/100 over those games. The offense is not — scoring fewer than 95 points per hundred in four of the last five games.

But, progress is progress, and it is a positive sign that this team’s leaders have recognized that the devil is, in fact, in the details. While Wednesday’s win over the Miami Heat grabs headlines for its role in the big goals, it was success in the little things that led to the victory.

Before the game, Frank Vogel talked about getting Roy Hibbert more engaged in the offense. “We just need balance,” he said. “Roy’s being selfless in letting the perimeter players share a bigger load, but we need something from Roy Hibbert on the offensive end. We can’t just be a perimeter-oriented team.”

Against Miami, Roy Hibbert scored 21 points, but more importantly, got 15 shots. That’s tied for his fifth-highest shot total this season, more than he’s taken in the last 15 games dating back to February 27. Equally impressive are the 9 free-throw attempts, his fourth-highest total of the season.

“We still need [Roy] to be a factor,” Vogel reiterated after the win. “That was a strong focal point with our team the last two days. We need his production.”

Of course, part of getting Hibbert more involved — getting “more balance” — means reducing opportunities for the wings. David West touched on something that’s been a growing concern for Pacer observers over the last two months: Paul George.

“We don’t want Paul working too hard,” West said. “Last few games or so, he’s been trying to do too much on his own, in terms of creating and off the dribble. We want to make sure we’re getting him shots in rhythm, and he’s keeping the defense honest — not being able to figure out what he’s going to do every single play.”

George’s recent struggles are well-documented. As a young player, he’s been guilty of questionable decision making. This is something that is hard for a player to correct on his own, so he needs direction and constructive criticism from his coaches and teammates. West’s comments are the first I’ve seen that really indicate that the team is addressing this in a productive manner.

George missed 11 of his 19 shots against the Heat, but was 3-of-6 from 3-point range and — most importantly — had only one turnover. “I thought P was solid for us,” said West. “He was aggressive in moments. He attacked the rim and had some big finishes that were momentum builders for us. He took care of the basketball, so he was good for us.”

And taking care of the basketball is the next little thing they did a little better in the Miami game. “We won the turnover battle, which is key,” West said. “The games that we’ve lost to these guys in the past, they’ve been able to turn us over like hotcakes and get run outs.”

In a 3-point loss to the Heat earlier this season, the Pacers allowed 19 points on 16 turnovers. On Wednesday, they limited themselves to 12 turnovers, giving up only 12 points off of them. Again, it was focusing on the details that helped. “We might have shown every turnover that we had in the first two games before the game tonight on tape,” Vogel said after the game.”Remind them how sloppy we’ve been. That might have had something to do with it.”

It’s not that the big picture drive for the #1 seed doesn’t matter. It may be more important than ever, especially when you realize that the Pacers are now 33-4 in the Fieldhouse.

“We’ve struggled on the road a little bit, but we’ve been dominant at home,” Vogel said. “That’s a big reason we want home-court advantage.”

They can’t win that in a single game, however. At least, not yet.

Last Friday, the Pacers defeated the hot Chicago Bulls in what may have been a better performance. It was, at the very least, prettier. It was a win met with palpable relief, and the hope that it perhaps meant everything was back on track. Then the Pacers lost two straight on the road in which they could barely score room temperature.

After beating Miami, West was offered the same bait about this being a difference-making win. He wasn’t even nibbling.

“Nah,” West said. “It’s just good for us to beat a quality team, not to disappoint our fans who packed the house. Send them home happy, and have to get ready to tee it up in a couple days.”

When pressed on the topic, the savvy vet expounded, but didn’t deviate from his message. “This is just another good win,” West said. “We’re glad to beat a quality team. We did some good things. Took care of the basketball better than we have been. I thought we moved the ball more efficiently than we have been. Roy played well for us. We’ve talked about trying to get him established inside. It culminated in a good victory for us. ”

So, it becomes about the details.

Not that it was ever really about anything else — but now the Pacers seem to finally be coming to grips with it. Coming to grips with what got them to this point and what separates them from some of the flashier teams in the NBA.

“We just have to continue to build habits,” West said. “It’s still a grind. We’ve got 10 or 11 games left, and we’ve just got to continue to plug away at this.”

Vogel emphasized this details-based approach after the game. “That’s what we’re working at every day,” Vogel said. “Guys are really grinding under a very difficult March schedule. They’re coming in and doing their work every day — paying attention to the details of what we have to do to improve and play better basketball. That’s the goal: finishing strong here.”

It certainly lacks the glamour of talking about titles and #1 seeds, but it has the advantage of giving concrete, achievable things to work on. As Vogel noted, the seeding won’t matter if the Pacers aren’t playing well, when they reach the playoffs. If the Pacers want to be a big deal, then they need to take care of the small stuff.

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