When you look at Frank Vogel these days, you can almost see a tiny angel perched on one shoulder, a little devil on the other.
“Stick to your beliefs, Frank,” whispers the angel. “These players won 56 games, they can win two more. Have faith.”
“Bench ‘em. Bench ‘em all,” screams the devil. “These players might’ve won 56 games, but they should’ve won 66 and now they’re about to cost you your job. Accept reality.”
As his Pacers face a game that will either keep hope alive or certify them as an eternal punchline, Vogel must consider every possibility, from changing nothing to changing everything.
But he must change something, and something significant, for the Pacers to win Game 6 Thursday night in Atlanta.
Trailing 3-2, having lost twice at home, the Pacers are on the verge of being just the sixth No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed. The Hawks, 38-44 during the regular season, are on the verge of becoming the first team with a record that bad (a .463 winning percentage) to win a postseason series since the 1976 Pistons.
The symptoms are obvious. The cures are not.
Atlanta has used perimeter mismatches and hot shooting to put together decisive runs in each of its games: 20-4 in the third quarter of Game 1, 17-6 in the fourth quarter of Game 3, 28-6 in the second quarter of Game 5.
Vogel has made two primary adjustments. After Jeff Teague broke loose for 28 points in the opener, Vogel had Paul George take on the defensive assignment, and Teague’s impact has been lessened with averages of 15.5 points and .375 shooting in the last four games.
The other adjustment has been to finish games with a small lineup. Starting center Roy Hibbert, famously ineffective, has not played in the fourth quarter since Game 1. Luis Scola has been the primary beneficiary of the extra minutes, although Chris Copeland played a major role in the Pacers’ furious but futile comeback in Game 5, cutting a 30-point deficit to 9.
“This is about Indiana’s inability to guard perimeter players, specifically their guards,” said NBA TV analyst Stu Jackson. “Big men are forced into helping a split second too long, they can’t get back out to recover that amount of air space to the big men that are shooters from the perimeter, and you have a big problem.”
Vogel has been reluctant to use Copeland in anything other than desperate situations because he is a defensive liability. But he is a far more potent scorer, bringing a 3-point threat that forces Atlanta’s defense to spread out, creating driving lanes for Indiana’s perimeter players to attack the Hawks’ soft underbelly.
If Hibbert is not going to finish the game, why use him at all? He is averaging 4.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and .313 shooting in the series, and the Pacers have been outscored by 16 points while he has been on the floor. They’re plus-nine with Copeland.
While Hibbert has gone AWOL, Copeland has remained the good soldier.
“My job is to stay ready and when my number is called, go out and play,” Copeland said. “If (Vogel) wants me to play, I’ll play. If I don’t, I’ll cheer my teammates on. It’s not about me. I’m a competitor first, I do want to play, but it’s a big picture here. I joined this team to win a championship, so our goal is that and whatever coach says, I believe in. I trust coach.”
Whatever Vogel decides, it will not come lightly. Thursday night could be the launching pad for a deep playoff run. Or it could be the end of the season and quite possibly his last game as the Pacers head coach.
As he process all the possibilities, how will Vogel decide?
“Instincts,” he said. “You’ve just got to rely on your gut.”
No doubt, it is rumbling.
This is not a decision between good and evil, right and wrong. It is about winning and losing.
Vogel’s choice must come down to this: whatever gives the Pacers the best chance to win one game, whoever needs to play, whoever needs to sit, nothing else matters.
It’s a devil of a dilemma.