To Save Their Season, the Pacers Must Learn to Trust Each Other Again

(Photo: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Vogel cannot become someone else, however. Nor should anyone want him to try. More importantly, the time for putting your foot up someone’s ass is past. For trust to be rebuilt, the players and coaches must feel safe within the confines of their unit. This does not mean that they should be excused for failures or mistakes. Rather, it can be better stated by stealing Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we will all hang separately.” In that regard, Vogel’s approach may be one of the few that could salvage the situation. 

To have any chance at recreating the atmosphere that bred earlier success, Frank Vogel must walk the thin line between positivity and outright delusion. Focus on process, praise execution, and reward team-first mentality, even when it doesn’t work. Especially when it doesn’t work.

Believe That

Wednesday night, less than 48 hours after another brutal loss to the Spurs, Vogel showed no less energy or optimism, but was perhaps better at articulating the delicate job before him. “Before you win a game, you’ve gotta make adjustments to your play,” he said. “I’ve been encouraged with our willingness to share the basketball the last few games, even though we haven’t seen it pay off. I think there’s been a shift in our unselfishness and team-first mentality, and I think that’s going to pay off. That’s been my message the last few days.”

He noted the problems inherent in a tight NBA schedule late in the season, and stressed that his team needed to get back its foundation for success. “It’s difficult — without any practices — to make full-scale changes,” Vogel said. “It’s really a back-to-the-basics type of thing.”

As he continued, he struck on the crux of both the problem and the solution. “[We have to] do what we know works. We’ve got a good system, that has worked for us, and we’ve just got to execute the fundamentals.”

“I’ve been encouraged with our willingness to share the basketball the last few games, even though we haven’t seen it pay off. I think there’s been a shift in our unselfishness and team-first mentality, and I think that’s going to pay off.’ – Frank Vogel

It is clear. Frank Vogel believes.

He knows what must happen to improve the team’s outlook and get the players back on track: “Win, and stay positive, and believe. Believe in what we’re doing. What we’re doing works.”

A week ago, the Pacers talked about smaller goals after squeaking past Miami to expand their lead in the East to three games. That lead has evaporated. So the Pacers are now focusing even more minutely.

Their focus isn’t on the one seed. Their focus isn’t even necessarily on winning games. “Be good at what you do,” Vogel said. “Focus on the task at hand. We’re not saying, ‘We’ve gotta go win.’ We’re saying, ‘We’ve gotta play the right way.’ And when you play the right way, the winning will come.”

The Results Will Come

This mindset was tested just hours later as the Pacers faced the Detroit Pistons. After falling behind by 9 in a start that featured plenty of missed Pacer shots and a palpable sense of dread, Indiana responded.

As Conrad Brunner put it, we were treated to a few minutes of December after a bleak March. A 34-21 finish to the half spurred by Lance Stephenson going into full-attack mode left both the team and their fans feeling somewhat energized.

Still, the lead was only 50-46.

In the third quarter, the Pacers continued to play well, but their control of the game wasn’t translating to the scoreboard. The lead was never more than 8, and a 12-4 Piston run to close the quarter left Indiana trailing by one heading into the fourth. Things were poised for another Pacer collapse — one that could do irreparable damage to this team, given its context.

But, Vogel says he wasn’t worried about losing.  “I thought we were playing the right way,” he said. “I keep stressing to these guys, ‘Play the right way. Work your tail off on the defensive end. Create open shots for each other on the offensive end. The results will come. The results will come. That’s what we said during the stretch. ‘All right, [the Pistons] made a run. They made some tough shots. Keep playing the right way, and we’ll take the game back.’ And, we did.”

Ian Mahinmi seconded his coach’s emotion. “Even though we weren’t really winning by that much, we felt like we were playing the right way,” Mahinmi said. “The ball was moving. Guys were missing open shots, but making a lot of open shots, too. Throughout the whole game, I felt like we had a pretty good feeling. We felt like we were controlling the game.”

Paul George gave some insight into the feel and interaction on the floor. “Everybody was positive,” he said. “Everybody was on the same page. If someone messed a play up, there was constructive criticism and guys took it well. It’s how we started the year off. That’s how it felt.”

Still, nothing permanent was proven or fixed by beating the 27-win Detroit Pistons at home . “It’s a step,” Vogel said. “I don’t think you go from the way we were struggling back to being dominant overnight.”

But, then he returned to accentuating the positive. “Three games in a row, in my mind, we played the right way — trying to trust the pass and trying to guard,” he said. “I think each of those three games, we’ve gotten closer to returning to form.”

There Is No Other Way

Is this the worst stretch Vogel has lived through as a head coach? “I think there’s been a stretch like this, every year we’ve been here,” he said. “April, last year, was a dark time. This is a frustrating time. I wouldn’t call it a dark time. I don’t believe the sky is falling. I don’t believe the world is coming to an end. We’re all frustrated. We all wanna play better. I believe that this will stabilize.”

“I don’t believe the sky is falling. I don’t believe the world is coming to an end … I believe that this will stabilize.” – Frank Vogel

There is no doubt that there are mechanical issues that need to be addressed. They need to screen better. They need to crash the boards more. They need to play faster. They need to take care of the ball better. God knows, they need to start hitting open shots again. Focusing on these, however, is treating the symptoms and not the disease.

And make no mistake, regaining trust in Vogel, in the system, and in each other won’t suddenly catapult the Pacers back to dominance. Indiana wants to meet — and defeat — the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, then go on to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy home to the Fieldhouse.

Simply believing won’t make that happen.

But, if they don’t believe — if they don’t reestablish that trust — then there is nothing waiting for this Pacer team but an early exit from the playoffs and a very, very uncertain future.