And so the Frank Vogel era begins with, as expected, a victory against the struggling Toronto Raptors, who came into the game with an 11 game losing streak.
With Jim O’Brien finally gone from the picture, his 37-year-old apprentice looked every part the new head coach as he guided the Pacers to a comfortable, if not somewhat nervewracking 104-93 win. The Pacers improve to 18-27 and look to build on this start against the only team that’s struggling worse than the Raptors right now — the Cleveland Cavaliers, who just got throttled by the Miami Heat to earn their 21st consecutive loss.
It’s too early to judge Vogel just yet. This was a game the Pacers were expected to win and would have won even with O’Brien at the helm. Heck, they may have won more comfortably. They started out kind of shaky before breaking the game wide open in the second quarter behind some strong play by Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough, raising the lead up to 20 points before sloppiness and laziness allowed the Raptors to come almost all the way back.
Fortunately, the Raptors imploded in the late stages of the fourth quarter to allow the Pacers to escape with a W.
But I guess it could have been worse. The Pacers could have lost.
The biggest, and most pleasing difference tonight was Roy Hibbert, who showed flashes of the Hibbert we saw at the start of the season. Hibbert missed a couple of shots early, but he eventually settled in and dominated the Raptors down low to finish with 24 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks on 9-19 shooting in 30 minutes. This was a more confident, more aggressive Hibbert, which brings credence to the argument that O’Brien was the one that stifled Hibbert’s confidence.
That said, Hibbert was playing against the Raptors’ smaller and weaker big men, so we won’t really know if he has really turned the corner until he plays a team with decent bigs.
Another positive Vogel brought with him was the rotation — ie giving Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George decent minutes, especially the latter. Hansbrough threw up 13 shots in 15 minutes to finish with 14 points and 6 rebounds, and George was solid again with 16 points in 25 minutes. Hansbrough was just returning from pneumonia, so his minutes were probably limited on purpose. Hopefully we’ll get to see both guys play at least 20-25 minutes a night for the remainder of the season.
Other positives? Allowing Darren Collison to play through his mistakes. I’m a big fan of Collison and what he can do for the team, at least on the offensive side, and tonight he had 16 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds — numbers he is capable of putting up every night — but he also had 6 turnovers. I’m glad Vogel allowed Collison to play through these mistakes instead of going to say TJ Ford, who didn’t play tonight.
Also not playing was James Posey — another good idea. I still don’t understand why O’Brien continued to give him so many minutes with the team losing and young guys not getting minutes. It wasn’t like Posey was doing anything apart from hitting the rare three pointer.
In all, a good victory for the Pacers considering Danny Granger struggled from the field (11 points on 3-15 shooting) — but he did have 9 rebounds and 5 assists, and would have had a lot more if his teammates hit their shots. I liked what I saw from Granger tonight. He tried to play within the flow of the game and let his teammates get involved. His defense was also better.
As for the negatives? Well, the Pacers should have put the game away pretty much at halftime because they raced out to that 20 point lead. Vogel couldn’t (or at least he couldn’t get his players to) stop the bleeding as the Raptors chipped away at the lead to just trail by 6 points at the half.
There were also a few stretches where the Pacers kept turning the ball over (they had 25 for the game and still won!) without even putting up a shot, and he didn’t do enough to steady the situation.
But at the end of the day, a win is still a win. The Pacers now have a day off before taking on the Cavaliers in Cleveland. That game is kind of like this one — a game the Pacers should win, but a dangerous one because the Cavs are so desperate for a win. A good opportunity for Vogel to show that he can get his team prepared mentally.
The true test, though, is the Portland game at home two days after that. If the Pacers can pull that one out, then I’m sure you’ll start to hear that maybe firing O’Brien now was the correct choice.