Frank Vogel is rolling the dice, and the stakes are high.
If this gambit pays off with a recharged team making another deep playoff run, the season will be saved.
If it does not, his next exit interview with Larry Bird may very well be his last.
By pulling the plug on the Pacers’ pursuit of the No. 1 seed, by choosing to rest some – or all – of the starters for the final four games, Vogel may well be putting his own job on the line.
Not that long ago, Bird publicly called out his coach for not being hard enough on the players. Now, the same coach is taking his foot off the gas when the race could still be won. You don’t have to be Sheldon Cooper to put two and two together.
“I think rest and healing up nagging injuries is part of the solution. It’s not the whole solution,” Vogel said after only the reserves practiced Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “Obviously we haven’t been very strong with our shot-making of late. Our defense the other night (a blowout loss to the Hawks Sunday) was as bad in terms of containing the basketball as we’ve been all year and I think that has to do with legs, and commitment.
“We just want to be mindful of making sure we’re as fresh as possible going into the playoffs.”
This isn’t about making an excuse for the team’s late-season implosion.
It’s about eliminating one.
The Pacers certainly have been playing like they’re tired, or something, and so when Paul George and David West approached Vogel and suggested it was time to start giving the starters some time off, the coach agreed.
Monday’s scheduled practice was called off. Tuesday, only the reserves took the floor. Vogel said he would rest selected starters in each of the four remaining games, beginning tonight in Milwaukee.
Though he said otherwise, the move signals the Pacers have given up the pursuit of the No. 1 seed, or at very least have de-prioritized in the wake of the team’s worst slump in three seasons. The Pacers have lost seven of nine overall and carry a six-game road losing streak into Milwaukee.
“Obviously it was a goal of ours, it is a goal of ours, to get the No. 1 seed but at this point playing well is our top priority and part of that is being fresh going into the playoffs,” he said. “We’re still going to compete and try to win the final four games and try to get the one seed. We feel good if we have the two seed we can have all the success we’re hoping to.”
Miami (53-24) lost to the Nets Tuesday night and is one-half game ahead of the Pacers (53-25). While Indiana faces the league’s worst team tonight, the Heat will be in Memphis, so it’s hardly inconceivable the Pacers could awaken Thursday in first place.
With the opportunity to put a stranglehold on the top seed with a victory in Miami Friday.
“We know we’ve been playing bad and we know we have some work to do but we believe in ourselves,” said Luis Scola. “We believe we have a good team and we played really well early in the season and the same guys are here, so I don’t see a reason why we can’t play well. We’ve just got to go through this phase, get better and be ready for the playoffs.
“We’ve still got a chance to be No. 1 and it’s not a crazy chance. We win our games and it’s a big chance we get it. It doesn’t really matter if we’re one or two. The main thing for us right now is to be ready to get better and get over a little bit this bad time we’re having.”
The timing of this move seems strange. Why not wait until after the Miami game to give the starters some time off? That would leave a week of downtime before the playoffs begin.
But Vogel may have forced his own hand Sunday, when he benched Roy Hibbert at halftime. By singling out Hibbert on a night when the entire first unit was lifeless, Vogel risked popping the balloon and letting whatever air remained out of his sensitive center’s fragile confidence.
Making this move now not only allows the opportunity for Hibbert to save face, but for a struggling second unit to get additional playing time and build its own confidence and rhythm heading into the playoffs.
And then there’s this: the starters had given Vogel no reason to believe that sticking with them would produce anything other than the same tired results of the past few weeks.
“I probably should’ve chosen some games in March to give them days off. I didn’t. I think there was a consequence to that and I think our guys look worn down,” Vogel said. “I think getting them some rest will make them fresher going into the playoffs. It’s not the answer, but I think it’s part of it.”
But are they really any more tired than the rest of the league? Are they really more tired than last season, when they lost five of six heading into the playoffs?
“I know we’re playing worse than we were a year ago at this time,” he said. “You’re playing as bad as we’ve played, you’ve got to make some adjustments.”
If this doesn’t work, the next round of adjustments will be up to Bird.