The Pacers are re-defining themselves on the fly, and it’s going to be bumpy until everything settles.
Of their first seven games, six came down the final possession of regulation.
>> They won in Toronto thanks to George Hill’s closing bucket, beat Sacramento in double-overtime after coming up empty on the final shots of regulation and the first overtime, and needed a stop to hang on to beat Washington.
>> They lost in Charlotte when D.J. Augustin missed an open corner 3-pointer at the buzzer, then dropped consecutive road games in Atlanta and Minnesota in almost identical fashion, with the defense yielding layups on inbounds plays.
Get used to it. While Frank Vogel figures out how best to re-deploy his forces in the absence of his biggest weapon, the Pacers will not resemble an elite team. Not even close.
Once he does – and I suspect he’s getting close – the Pacers will be fine. Not top-of-the-East fine, but solid-playoff-contender fine.
“It’s painful, first and foremost, when you lose games you feel you should win,” Vogel said. “You’re right there at the end of the game and one or two plays impact whether you win or lose and you lose three in a row, that’s awful tough to handle. But you just evaluate, you identify what areas need to be improve or adjusted and you go and you make those improvements or adjustments. …
“When Danny (Granger) went down, I knew it would be a little bit of a trial-and-error period. I expected that our bench unit playing together would be a strength of ours. They’ve struggled, so we adjusted the rotation, staggered the rotation so D.J. Augustin is playing with David West and Paul George. And Tyler Hansbrough gets to play with George Hill and Roy Hibbert. We stagger it so it’s more of a team approach as opposed to a five-in, five-out type of deal.”
Early returns on the first major tweak to the system were encouraging if inconclusive. Lance Stephenson moved into the starting lineup at shooting guard, shifting Paul George to small forward. Stephenson scored 12 on 5-of-7 shooting while George had 20 with seven rebounds in the 89-85 victory over the winless Wizards on Saturday.
The bench responded, as well, combining for 31 points – 15 from Gerald Green – on combined 11 of 21 shooting.
Stephenson has been one of the bright spots thus far and earned the start. He still makes mistakes but has demonstrated an attack mindset on both offense and defense, using his size, strength and quickness to full advantage.
“I just want him to continue to pick up the energy,” Vogel said. “He’s a little bit like Tyler. Obviously they’re different creatures but when he’s on the court the energy of everybody else out there picks up. He’s an under-your-skin guy defensively, not always in the right spot but he’s getting better.
“He’s a presence, he’s a physical presence out there and offensively he just needs to play fairly mistake-free basketball. He’s got to limit his turnovers, create for others and play within the system. He’s been doing a good job of that.”
While the knee-jerk reaction to Granger’s injury was increased pressure on George and Roy Hibbert to ratchet up their production, in fact the emphasis shifted to veterans George Hill and David West – two guys with the experience and ability to guide a team through a storm.
Those two have been the Pacers’ best players, West averaging 16.7 points and 8.6 rebounds, with Hill averaging 15.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.0 rebounds.
Hill in particular has impressed Vogel, who compares his career arc to that of Chauncey Billups, a converted shooting guard who thrived when handed the point guard job in Detroit.
“I have such a great deal of confidence in George Hill’s ability as a point guard,” Vogel said. “What we learned towards the end of (last) year, became more and more evident as the year went on is he’s just an elite point guard in this league at both ends of the court. That’s a big part of us sort of remaking our identity.”
George is coming around, though Hibbert clearly is scuffling, averaging 8.7 points and shooting just 38.4 percent.
As for the bench, well, that’s a different story. Hansbrough still plays with energy but frequently has little to show for it. Green needs to find a consistent groove, and D.J. Augustin has just been a mess. Ian Mahinmi is solid, one of the better backup big men in the East. Sam Young has struggled but is a tough-minded player who needs to be in the rotation.
In the meantime, Vogel will continue to evaluate and re-evaluate. Given his druthers, he’d start the same five guys all season long. He is not by nature a mad-scientist, prone to constant tinkering.
Like everybody else, he is adjusting and adapting on the fly.
“Every couple of games, we’ll re-evaluate where we are with everything with the rotation, what’s working, what’s not working and that’s what we keep talking to our guys about – maintain a patience level, maintain a sense of urgency to improve but understand that there’s going to be a time period here where we’re sort of figuring things out with our team,” he said. “With the new players and the absence of Danny, we’re in a figure-things-out type of mode.”
In the meantime, they’ll have to scratch and claw for anything, for everything and, sometimes, nothing.
Submit a question to Conrad Brunner and he just might answer it as part of “Bruno’s Mailbag,” on his new show, “Above the Rim,” which airs Wednesday at 7 p.m. You can also follow @1070Bruno on Twitter