Q&A: Pacers Coach Frank Vogel on the Playoffs, His Defensive Player of the Year, and the Psycho T Art of ‘Pounding People’

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It has been a weird six weeks for the Pacers. They’re a middling 11-9 in their last 20 games, and their vaunted defense, the stingiest in the league, has slipped a bit in the last three weeks, partly because George Hill is battling hip and groin issues. They swept a four-game road trip that included strong wins in Dallas, Houston, and in L.A. against the Clippers, but they’ve also had some concerning losses — at home to the Lakers and Thunder, the latter in convincing fashion; a tough roadie in Chicago, and then puzzling road losses in Philadelphia and Washington. Toss in a close home loss to the scorching Nets and a miracle home comeback against the pathetic Cavs, and it has been hard to read Indiana of late.

It was a good moment, in other words, to chat at length with Frank Vogel about the state of his team. Vogel spent time with Grantland after Indiana’s loss in New York on Sunday, and it’s clear he is very confident about the Pacers. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.

You guys ranked 29th in points per possession in mid-January, which is not all that long ago. But you’ve been something like 10th or 11th since the All-Star break. What happened? Is it as simple as Roy Hibbert finding his game again?

Part of it is that Roy has gotten right. But Paul George has fallen off now in the last few weeks, so we’ve gotta make sure everyone is clicking at the same time. But we’ve got a lot of offensive weapons. Lance growing into his role, Paul growing into his role, and just getting more familiar with our bench — that has all factored us into being pretty good offensively.

I honestly don’t know how to characterize your offense, other than you post up a lot. You’re not a big pick-and-roll team on the surface, but you run a lot of those plays where a big man will set a screen in a pick-and-roll and then run into a post-up — or even set a pin-down screen for Paul George or another guard. I’ve noticed some elements from other teams, and even some borderline trick plays of late. There’s just a lot of stuff going on. So: What kind of offensive team are you?

We’re a power-post team more than anything. We do try to pick-and-roll into post-ups to counter teams that want to front you or push you off the block, so we try to get guys moving into it. We’re running more. That’s the other thing, in terms of offensive efficiency. And that’s not just because it’s increasing our pace. It’s also increasing efficiency, because when you run, you get better looks.

Lance Stephenson is obviously a beast in transition, but Roy told me earlier you’re on him and David West to run the floor harder. Is that true? And what do you get out of that? Is it as simple as when a big man runs to the basket, he sort of sucks defenders toward him, even if he never gets the ball?

Yeah, that’s what it is. They create such a vacuum effect, whether they get the ball or not. When they’re running through the charge circle, it creates open 3s. In the Cleveland game [Note: a giant comeback win on April 9], we were talking about how Lance Stephenson and George Hill were pushing the ball in the second half. Well, every time they were at the front of the rim, there was a big right there occupying the help. So them running hard creates a lot of stuff. And it’s our best post-up play.

In that it’s easier to get good post-up position before a defense can set up its help scheme?

They can’t front you. It’s very difficult to front you in transition.

Are you still terrified whenever Lance is doing anything, at any location on the court? I’m still adjusting.

No, no. I’m not scared at all. On occasion he’ll do something a little wild, but he has a good feel for how to play the game, even in the open court. And I’ll tell you what: When he’s a freight train in the open court like that, I usually feel good — like something good is about to happen.

Between Lance and David West, you have two of the guys who would probably be in my top 10 of guys I wouldn’t want to guard. Toss Tyler Hansbrough in there, too. That’s three. Those dudes are all pretty scary in their own ways.

We’re about offensive physicality. Smashmouth basketball, we call it. We’re about pounding it inside, pounding the glass, and our guards playing with an offensive physicality — driving the ball, not settling. And we’re trying to be a great passing team too. That’s one of the other changes we’ve made between the first half and the second half of the season — we’re making the extra pass more.

You had it moving pretty well today, even though the score won’t show it.

Oh, yeah. We’re clearly making that pass a lot more. We didn’t make any shots today.

Back to Paul George: He’s had an All-Star season, but he’s an unconventional perimeter All-Star in a way. He doesn’t dribble as much as your typical perimeter star. You get him a lot of catch-and-shoot chances, and even when he runs pick-and-roll, it’s usually one of those plays where he comes off a screen, makes a catch on the run, and then goes directly into the pick-and-roll — rather than having him just pound the ball and call for a pick. This is all intentional, obviously.

It’s what a lot of teams are doing to get their wings the ball on the move before a screen-and-roll — to get them a “live catch.” We talk about that all the time. You can be more of an attacker when you can make a quick catch and just go.

Do you eventually envision Paul being more of a stand-alone off-the-dribble guy? We talked earlier this season about his tendency to turn the ball over when he tries to split defenders on the pick-and-roll, but he’s cleaned that up a bit. Do you want him to run the offense more, or do you like him moving around like this?

I just like the offense moving around like that. I don’t like isolation play, unless you’re in the low post. And wings in the post — they’re easy to front when you have two bigs out there. It’s tough to get wings deep post catches when you’re playing with two bigs all the time.

Is there anything to this late-season defensive slippage? Or is it just randomness, or even a case of a veteran team waiting for the playoffs to start?

Honestly? There’s some minor slippage, and then some circumstantial games — we played Philly on a second end of a back-to-back when they were rested for two days. We played Washington on the second end of a back-to-back when they also had rested for two days. George Hill is banged up.

He’s key at the point of attack. He has to be healthy.

Yeah, and he’s limited with his mobility right now. He’s got a hip-slash-groin injury, so he’s struggling a little bit with some point guards.

That showed up against Brooklyn the other night, I thought. He just looked a half-step slow and out of position, and Deron Williams killed you.

Yeah, yeah. But Brooklyn — they scored 117 points and had 28 in the paint. They were bombing 3s and long 2s — Jerry Stackhouse, Brook Lopez, Iso Joe Johnson. Long 2s, contested pretty well. It wasn’t as bad as you thought.

So you watched film and didn’t see as many breakdowns as it appeared in real time?

I wasn’t as disappointed as I was during the game. They just got red-hot. We’ve got to take the airspace away a little more, but we contested most of those jumpers.

True or false: Tyler Hansbrough has the least aesthetically pleasing game in the league. I’ve called him the most unwatchable player in the NBA, and I feel a little bit bad about that.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I love watching him play.

No you don’t. Come on. That’s a lie. You just have to say that.

I love seeing him smash people. I love offensive physicality. I love his defensive energy.

His defense is fine, you’re right. I like watching him blitz pick-and-rolls.

He’s less aesthetically pleasing than David West. I’ll give you that. But it’s a different kind of aesthetically pleasing. I like seeing him pound people.

I mean, he had that sequence today where he drew some horrid shooting foul, missed both free throws, got his own rebound, and immediately drew another horrid shooting foul. The rhythm of the game just died.

It’s comical. It’s comical sometimes.

Ian Mahinmi didn’t play today. He had a stomach bug recently, but he had played the prior game. Anything flare up with him?

It’s not that. It’s not that. He’s been struggling a little bit, but Jeff Pendergraph …

That guy gives you good minutes every time he plays.

He’s played really well, and last time we played the Knicks, watching the tape, he was all over the place, just making winning plays. I knew they were going to be small, and I wanted to give us another offensive threat — he’s a better shooter than Ian. He’s our second-best perimeter shooter among our bigs. I just wanted another shooter out there, and to reward him for the way he’s played.

You guys last season were really bad when Tyler and Lou Amundson played together as the backup bigs. The same thing has happened this season when Tyler and Mahinmi have played together. So: Will you stagger the minutes in the playoffs so that one of West and Hibbert will be on the floor at all times?

Absolutely. Yeah, we’ll always try to stagger those guys. And their minutes will go up, too. So it’s not going to be 30 and 32 minutes, but more like 36 and 38.

So just to be clear: You’ll try to keep one of them out there at all times?

Yeah. Or most times, at least. There might be a couple of minutes a game here or there [when both sit].

We haven’t seen a lot of the D.J. Augustin–Hill–George combination play together. I thought we’d see more of that. D.J. obviously hasn’t shot well, but is this more about his shooting, or about keeping your size advantage intact?

I like playing size per position defensively. That’s a big reason we’re first in a lot of categories — because of our size at every position.

Which is funny, because a lot of your rivals in the Eastern Conference play a ton of small ball — New York, Miami, Boston. Even today, in order to keep Paul George on Melo, who was playing power forward, you had to hide David West someplace — on Iman Shumpert or Jason Kidd or Steve Novak. Does that kind of contortion make you uncomfortable? Or is it something you’re happy to do in order to keep two bigs on the floor?

Oh, no. Having our [power forward] guarding a 3-point shooter is not uncomfortable for us. We’ve done it all year, and we’ve done it well. Those guys are guarding spot-up 3-point shooters — not guys like Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith, but guys like Steve Novak and Shane Battier. Guys that just stand out there and shoot. It allows us to stay big. I don’t sweat over that at all.

You’ve used Paul George a ton as the lone starter in lineups with four bench guys. That was often Danny Granger’s role. Is George ready to do that in the postseason?

We’re actually better, statistically, when Roy Hibbert or David West or George Hill is the one starter out there than we are when it’s Paul. I’m not sure why that is.

Interesting. By the way, I realize this is an unfair question almost, but if you had to pick one of your players to nominate for Defensive Player of the Year — and only one — do you pick Paul George or Roy Hibbert?

Paul, but it’s very close to even.

I thought you’d say Roy. Why Paul?

Him just being able to guard just about every position. But Roy has been dominant, too. He’s the best rim protector in the game, according to most numbers I’ve seen. He’s a candidate, too.

And he gushes about David West. Have you talked to David about his free agency yet? Have you started to imagine how you might adjust if he leaves?

No. No. We have every intention of bringing him back.

Filed Under: Indiana Pacers, NBA, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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