By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Tom Thibodeau, not given to chuckling, did just that as the question washed over him. The Chicago Bulls’ head coach shook his head and seemed truly flummoxed.
“I have no idea where that comes from,” Thibodeau said. “I really don’t. What, they should apologize for playing hard? Come on.”
The topic was the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 team and the Bulls’ opponents Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (7 ET, League Pass). There have been rumblings in the media and the Pacers’ fan base that, maybe, coach Frank Vogel and his guys ought to be, well, pacing themselves better as the regular season runs out and the postseason nears.
Asking Thibodeau about easing through something is like asking Richard Petty if Jimmie Johnson ought to take some pedal off the metal while making all those left turns.
“It’s a long season. There’s going to be some ups and downs. You’ve got to navigate through things. Hey, they’re a terrific team,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t pick and choose when you’re going to play hard and not play hard. When you look at the teams I know… From my own experience, with Boston, that team practiced hard every day, they played hard every day. That’s the way it was.”
It stayed that way when Thibodeau got hired by Chicago. In 2010-11, his team tore through the season at a 62-20 record, securing the No. 1 seed all the way through the Finals if only it had advanced that far (the Bulls lost to Miami in five games one step short). In 2011-12, Chicago’s 50-16 again topped the East, making Thibodeau the fastest coach in league history to rack up 100 victories, though Derrick Rose‘s knee blowout stopped them in the first round.
Thibodeau faces criticism annually for running up minutes on some of his players, certainly during certain needy stretches of each season, and takes heat at least indirectly for the Bulls’ injury history in recent seasons. Yet he and the Bulls are praised for their effort, their energy and their overachievements.
While shrugging that off, Thibodeau claims to have done his homework on workloads and doesn’t feel he – or Vogel, for that matter – is overdoing a thing.
“I don’t see any negative from practicing hard. I don’t see any negative from playing hard,” Thibodeau said. “You’re building habits every time you step out there. I think you’ve got to develop a physical toughness and a mental toughness along the way. Because down the road when you do get there, there’s going to be a lot of fire that you’ve got to go through. And you’ve got to be prepared to deal with it.”
Vogel swats away talk of fatigue and rest with facts. “We don’t have anybody averaging over 35 minutes,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re overplaying guys. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to win every night. Anybody who tries to convince me otherwise is crazy.”
There was, for instance, a piece on CBSSports.com Thursday (after Indiana’s loss in New York the night before) headlined, “Did the Pacers push too hard, too soon?” It focused on the tightened race with Miami for the East’s No. 1 seed, a goal of the Pacers since Opening Night but one that might not be secured until the season’s final week. If at all, as Ken Berger of that Web site wrote:
Of all the things that the Pacers worked on to try to get back on track, rest hasn’t been one of them. And now, with two of their 14 remaining games against the Heat, there may not be time.
Vogel was off just a bit in his numbers. All-Star wing Paul George tops the Pacers at 35.9 minutes per game, but that’s down from his 2012-13 average of 37.6. Lance Stephenson (35.8) is the only other Indiana player averaging more than 32 minutes and, like George, he’s 23 years old.
The focus on finishing first in the East has driven Indiana most of the season but mocked them a little lately. Since beating Portland on Feb. 7 to reach 39-10, the Pacers have gone 11-8 overall and 0-4 against teams with winning records. This is no time to get well, either, with six of their next season against playoff-bound teams, including Chicago twice, Memphis, Miami and San Antonio.
Then again, panicking isn’t restful either, as forward David West was quoted in the Indianapolis Star:
“We talked in film session today about how we’re not going to overreact to the perception coming from the outside,” [West] said. “I have full confidence in this group. If we had given up the one seed or whatever, that’s one thing. But one of the reasons we got off to a good start was in case we had a stretch like this.”
Thibodeau – whose team has gone 14-5 during the Pacers’ slump, making up only three games in the Central Division – talks of overwork the way MLB war horses Nolan Ryan or Jack Morris might talk about modern hurlers’ pitch counts. No hand-wringing or mollycoddling allowed.
“When you study the teams that win it and you study the drive behind it… any team from when [Larry] Bird played or Magic [Johnson] played, Isiah [Thomas] played, [Michael] Jordan – all those guys had incredible drive. When you hear the stories about the incredible things they did – I know Kevin Garnett with us in Boston – there’s a driving force beind it. I think that’s necessary.
“There’s not a lot of difference between the elite teams,” the Bulls coach added. “It’s will, determination. That’s not something you develop once you get there. You’d better develop it all along the way.”
Vogel did admit to one area of overwork: George has been asked all season to lead the Pacers’ offense, while also serving as their best perimeter defender. It might be time to lighten his defensive load, Vogel revealed.
“Every time he goes 4-for-17, I tell myself we need to do that,” the Indiana coach said after Friday’s shootaround at the Fieldhouse. “So I would expect to see a little of that going forward.
“He’s such a competitive guy that he wants to guard the other team’s best player the whole game. So there’s a little bit of reluctance to take him off some of those guys, and that’s a good thing. But it’s also, I think, smart for our basketball team.”
Just don’t expect to see the Pacers pacing themselves.