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I can't shake the image of Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel screaming for a call his team isn't getting. It's a protest born of desperation. And it reflects a season slipping away.
No doubt Vogel had some legitimate beefs on that play and others. There were missed calls in the Pacers' 98-86 loss to the Miami Heat on Friday night in Miami, the last regular-season meeting between the teams fighting (loosely defined in Indiana's case) for the Eastern Conference top seed in the approaching playoffs. Those frustrating calls are magnified on the road.
But there are always missed calls in NBA games.
Vogel's look of desperation came in the midst of Miami's 16-0 run to open the third quarter and seize control of the game. Yes, the Pacers cut it to nine in the fourth when LeBron James was on the bench. But they also let it balloon back to 16 with James still watching. Also, Dwyane Wade was in street clothes, limiting him to one rebound fewer than Roy Hibbert.
I don't know what happened to the Pacers over the last few weeks to put them in this state of desperation.
I can recite what's happening, clear to see on Friday's broadcast, such as George Hill playing ineffectively at point guard, which is to say about twice as effectively as Hibbert at center. The Pacers offense too often turns into Paul George driving or bombing away. The defense, built around the idea of Hibbert locking down the paint, crumbles too easily now that he's leaving things unlocked.
Reciting what's happening and discerning “why” are two different things.
Why do the Pacers continue to be in a funk, unable to put together stretches, let alone games, of consistent play?
Vogel felt his team was tired, rested his starters and watched his backups beat the Milwaukee Bucks the other night. It was a feel-good game for the backups and an alleged necessary rest for the starters.
The rest did nothing to ignite Hibbert, who has played so poorly some in the Indianapolis media are calling for long-term benching. He had five points and one rebound, which I'm pretty sure is fewer than a 7-foot-2 should grab by accident.
It's telling when the Pacers broadcast crew chooses the Pacers “Power moves of the game” and settles on plays by Ian Mahinmi and C.J. Watson alongside George. Mahinmi and Watson are nice complementary players. The Pacers aren't winning the conference – or even reaching the conference finals – if Mahinmi and Watson are outperforming Hibbert and Hill.
What's Hibbert's problem? Maybe only he knows for sure, but the spark and defensive intimidation he brought to the court through the playoff series last season has disappeared. Maybe we overrated him.
The Heat look like the team regaining its energy just in time for the playoffs. James is as good as ever. He scored 36 points on the Pacers in between his stint as a volunteer refereeing consultant. There's a freedom to his play that isn't always there when Wade is healthy.
Ray Allen looks like the fountain of youth is in his backyard. Bosh's intensity varies, but he's a threat. Udonis Haslem is relentless. Mario Chalmers, Toney Douglas, Rashard Lewis, Chris Anderson – they all know their roles.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra remains confident enough in his team that he sits James in the fourth even as the Pacers appear to be gaining momentum. That momentum, such as it was, stalls before James re-enters the game with 5:25 left. He immediately dunks.
Pacers forward David West fouled out of the game guarding James, prompting James to say “Get him out of here,” as West exited. At least West shows his anger, fervor and drive.
Vogel is fighting not only for his season, but for his job. Larry Bird is back running the front office, remember, and patience is not his greatest virtue. I don't even think it's in the Top 5.
Bird, after all, tweaked the Pacers roster even as they were piling up wins, tweaks that may or may not have contributed to the funk. Team chemistry is a fragile thing, hard to regain once it unravels.
The hope for the Pacers is that the beginning of the impending postseason will spark a revival. Hope relies a bit on faith. Faith, when it wavers, reeks of desperation. Desperate teams can win games. They rarely, if ever, win championships. If the Pacers doesn't at least reach the Eastern Conference finals, Vogel has to be on shaky ground.
No wonder every call that goes against his team triggers Vogel's look of desperation. I'm not sure he'll get it off his face again this season.