Whether this move was the last straw for an overloaded team or the first step in the road to recovery, no one knows.
Not yet, anyway.
But for one night, Frank Vogel’s decision to turn the starters into spectators couldn’t have worked out better for the Pacers.
The Replacements produced a wildly entertaining (a phrase not associated much with the Pacers of late) 104-102 victory over Bucks in Milwaukee Wednesday night, a game decided by Chris Copeland’s runner in the closing seconds that produced the NBA equivalent of a court-storming by the entire Pacers bench.
All those nice suits worn by the inactive starters, including that beachy blue blazer on Roy Hibbert, may have gotten mussed in the celebration, but a few wrinkles and sweat stains are a small price to pay for that kind of moment.
In the process, they pushed Indiana back into the top spot in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, thanks to the Heat’s second consecutive loss (107-102 in Memphis).
This, of course, sets up a showdown Friday in Miami that LeBron James already has referred as “one of those games that’s like a Game 7,” because the winner will have firm control of the top seed. By all accounts, the starters – or at least some of them – will be back for that one.
First things first.
This was, this is, a critical move by Vogel, easily the riskiest of his career. For a coach to sit his entire starting lineup with so much still on the line is unprecedented. But to understand it, you have to be able to translate Vogel’s Defcon lexicon.
When the rest of us might see a tailspin, slump, funk or even a floater in the bowl, Vogel will use the word “concerning.” This is his Defcon 2, and it described the team’s performance between the All-Star break and the Atlanta game.
When the rest of us see unmitigated disaster that makes us want to burn couches, cancel season tickets and storm the gates of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with pitchforks and torches, he will use the word “disturbing.” This is his Defcon 1, which happened against the Hawks, and means it’s time to duck and cover.
In Vogel’s tenure, Pacerland has only rarely approached Defcon 2. This was the first experience with Defcon 1 and, man, could we hear the sirens.
But a funny thing happened on the way to mutually assured destruction: peace, love and joy staged a coup.
Luis Scola was a force, scoring 24 points on 11-for-17 shooting, with nine rebounds and three assists. Evan Turner showed his full range of tools with 23 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and even three 3-pointers. Copeland did what we all thought Copeland was going to do all year, score 18 points in 17 minutes, hitting 4-of-5 from the arc in the process.
And then there was Donald Sloan running the offense like he drew up the plays, creating space and opportunity with his deft ballhandling, generating eight assists without a turnover. When it came to tempo, he knew when it was time for allegro and when for andante.
Collectively, they showed the starters how it is supposed to be done. Run through the offense, not at it. Be patiently aggressive. Trust your teammates to do the right thing at both ends of the floor. Let the game come to you.
Ultimately, what the reserves accomplished was much more than one victory, however significant. They reminded themselves of just what they can do – and perhaps most telling, reminded Vogel and the starters.
The coach has historically been reluctant to trust the bench, which could explain in part why so many good players have played badly as reserves in Indiana – including Scola, Turner, Copeland and Sloan. When the coach shows no faith in you, it makes it that much more difficult to muster from within.
The byproduct for Vogel was a loss of leverage. If a starter believes the coach won’t pull you because he doesn’t trust your backup, that starter can very easily lose at least some of his motivation, consciously or otherwise. When all five starters feel that way, an entire team can slide.
Paul George and Lance Stephenson sat and watched while Turner played like a guy who deserves so start.
Roy Hibbert and David West sat and watched while Scola was the most important player on the floor, Ian Mahinmi threw his body around, Lavoy Allen flexed his muscles and Copeland did his thing.
And George Hill sat and watched while Sloan ran the team like a true floor general.
The Replacements have given Vogel back his leverage.
If this is to be the first step on the Pacers’ road to recovery, he should use it for all it is worth.