The Pacers can definitely beat the Hawks twice in a row. I’m not at all convinced they will — why would anybody be? — but I know they can.
And it comes down to whether Frank Vogel wants to stubbornly adhere to his beliefs about how basketball should be played or whether he is willing to simply the game and trust his players to outplay the opposition.
Right now, the team is built in his image. It is a “smash mouth” bunch that always has a traditional center on the court. It strictly adheres to the “point guard / two guard / small forward / power forward / center” structure that most coaches today consider a mere guideline.
It should be noted that Vogel has built all his success through such means. It’s quite possible that his style, and it’s near-uniqueness in today’s NBA, is the very thing that has given the Pacers a competitive advantage. The new-age, spread-and-shoot Heat have certainly had their trouble in matching up with this traditional style.
The Hawks, however, have not — and will not.
They are running an This Is All We Can Do offense that often features five men along the three-point line. It has a lot of screens and movement, leaving defenders scrambling along the perimeter to contest shots while guys like Jeff Teague knife through the vacant interior or Paul Millsap uses his tremendous skill set to score in the lane.
It isn’t particularly destructive. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But because Vogel won’t commit to adapting, it is hard for Indiana to defend. Without disrespecting the Hawks, who try hard and execute well, it is this strategy’s ability to exploit Indiana’s large, immobile personnel that is doing so much damage.
It is not the collection of talent on Atlanta’s roster. After Teague, Millsap and Kyle Korver, there is not great skill here. Lou Williams is a nice little player, for sure. Demarre Carroll fills his role very well.
But this is a very one-sided contest in terms of talent.
Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and David West are more dynamic than the Hawks’ top three. And George Hill, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Evan Turner all have versatility that the Hawks’ role players lack. Even Chris Copeland and Rasual Butler bring some top-notch shooting that can be employed.
Instead of relying on this talent, however, Vogel has dug in on strategy. He began the series, understandably, by keeping his once-vaunted, now-floundering defense out there to defend how it always has. Roy Hibbert remained in the middle. Like this, the Pacers got absolutely chewed up in Game 1. Assignments were blown and Teague carved up the middle.
It was here that onlookers could see the problems.
Vogel did make adjustments after, but he left the same personnel on the floor and merely altered tactics, switching screens on the perimeter in order to leave fewer shooters open. It worked some, but it was sloppy and imprecise. And it led to much confusion and many blown rotations, especially in the third quarter of Game 3.
In short, rather than adapt by using players with the physical tools to defend the perimeter, he was bending strategy to keep his core starters on the floor. Even with the change, his large immobile defenders have not been able to cover Atlanta’s shooters. His adjustments haven’t worked.
On the other end of the floor, too, Vogel has been unwilling to fully change tacts.
He has continued to feature a two-big-man offense with a lot of guard movement through the paint. It has been stagnant and rudimentary, creating nothing dynamic while clogging up the interior in ways that prevent his talented creators enough space to overwhelm an Atlanta roster full of poor defenders.
When he has spread the floor, putting shooters in the corners and leaving the interior open, the offense has looked much better.
When the team fell down by 30 in Game 5, for example, Vogel even went so far as to put in Chris Copeland, an obvious personnel move that Pacers Nation has been clamoring for for weeks. The result was a shooting barrage and a layup line that brought Indiana on the verge of coming back.
Of course, the deficit was too great, and the change in personnel came too late.
Game 6 will be all about whether or not Vogel can accept that what has worked so well in recent years won’t work here. Against the Hawks, the smash mouth strategy has failed miserably while the smaller, quicker lineups have worked better on both ends of the floor. And the spread offense has helped create the type of ball movement and open shots that this team has struggled to manufacture all season.
If Vogel is willing to play Game 6 like that, the Pacers should win. Of course, anything can happen in basketball; Mike Scott could hit five three-pointers in a quarter again. So nothing is guaranteed. But we have seen, by and large, over the past five games that the Pacers traditional style of play is nearly guaranteed to fail.
Instead, Vogel must abandon his principles and trust his players. He must give them freedom on offense and the personnel they need to defend. He must do something that goes against his own basketball philosophy.
Game 6 isn’t the Pacers vs. the Hawks. It’s Vogel vs. himself.