HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The Indiana Pacers found themselves in the peculiar position of rooting for the Miami Heat last week. Not because they were trying to butter-up the beasts of the East as they went for consecutive win No. 28 at Chicago, but because their disdain for their Central Division rival runs that much deeper.
Still, the Pacers, as with as the rest of the free world, know the road to the Eastern Conference championship goes through Miami. Last May, Indiana held a 2-1 series lead over the eventual NBA champs before it all unraveled in a six-game, East semifinal defeat.
Approaching a year later, the Pacers are a bit older and wiser. They believe, even with Danny Granger officially ruled out for the season, that they’re big enough, deep enough, physical enough and more explosive offensively — and even tougher defensively — than last season’s version to match up with the Heat in a potential East finals.
“We feel like we can compete with anybody if we’re playing defense and we’re making sharp, sound decisions on the offensive end,” forward David West said during the Pacers’ stop in Dallas last week. “Right now they’re [the Heat] the cream of the crop. They’re the champs and everybody else is just chasing them.”
Added All-Star Paul George: “The only thing that we’ll have to prove is how well we can play in the playoffs.”
Which is where being wiser could ultimately make the biggest difference. And it starts with coach Frank Vogel, who is in just his second full season as coach and whose 40th birthday doesn’t roll around until a few days after the NBA Finals in June.
Vogel said he walked away from last year’s Heat series having learned two key lessons that he’s implemented since training camp.
“No. 1 is we were one of the worst fouling teams in the league last year,” Vogel said. “And it probably cost us two games in that [Miami] series where we had two guys in foul trouble for key stretches.”
Let’s tackle this one before revealing key lesson No. 2. Indiana racked up the third-most fouls in the league last season, and in the six games against Miami it committed 147 infractions, 24.5 fouls per game, even more than its regular-season average.
The two “cost us” games Vogel referred to were Games 1 and 4, when the Pacers were called for a combined 59 fouls, or 40 percent of their six-game total.
In Game 1, foul trouble limited George Hill to 25 minutes and Paul George to 26 minutes in the 96-85 loss. In the pivotal Game 4 loss, 101-93, fouls benched West and center Roy Hibbert. Indiana led 61-51 with 8:29 to go in third quarter. Less than three minutes later, it was 61-61 and it all fell apart from there. Nine Pacers fouls in the quarter — two each by West and Hibbert to give each four — and seven turnovers helped turn the momentum.
“We’ve talked all season about learning to play the game without fouling, to keep key guys on the court and not give the other team easy opportunities,” Vogel said. “I think we’ve improved in that regard.”
As they look to gain a four-game road sweep tonight at the Los Angeles Clippers (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), the Pacers (47-27 and third in the East with one more loss than No. 2 New York) rank 15th in fouls committed, about 20 a game. Defending with a physical edge and without fouling is critically important against the likes of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, two players that have and can make a postseason killing at the free throw line. That’s especially true in light of LeBron’s post-Bulls-loss campaign for foul justice.
Here’s Vogel’s second key adjustment this season: “We played a lot of our starters together, then our bench together so we would have five bench guys in there at one time and that hurt us in that series. We’re using our depth more intelligently this year in terms of staggering our rotation so that we have one or two starters in the game at all times.”
It’s a critical point considering James averaged 42.2 mpg in the playoff series — and played 43 or more minutes in four of the six games — and Wade averaged 37.8, twice eclipsing 40 minutes.
Vogel is riding his starters more this season. Last year, Granger and point guard Darren Collison — traded to Dallas in the offseason — were the only starters to average more than 30 mpg, with Granger logging a team-high 33.3 mpg. This season, West, Hill and George all average at least 33.3 mpg with George at the top at 37.5 mpg, about eight minutes more than his average last season.
Hill, who took over the starting job from Collison late last season, is up nearly nine minutes from last season when he came off the bench in 41 of the 50 games he played. Conversely, forward Tyler Hansbrough leads a revamped bench at 18.2 mpg, down five minutes from last season.
“We feel like we’ve got a team that’s complete and balanced and able to matchup with anybody,” Vogel said.
The Pacers earned a measure of confidence by winning the regular-season series against the Heat, 2-1, taking both games at home. Of course, the Knicks and Bulls also won the season series, and each took a game at Miami.
“We know regular season means nothing,” Hill said. “When you get into the playoffs anything can happen. We know that we just have to continue doing what we do as a team at the defensive end and the offensive end like we’ve been doing all year long to have a chance.”