The Bulls have taken the first two games of their opening round playoff series against the Pacers. No surprise there. What has been surprising is that the Bulls have needed two MVP quality efforts from Derrick Rose to maintain their homecourt advantage against the 8-seeded Pacers. Going into the series, everyone from the national media to Indy Star columnist Bob Kravitz were of the same mind: the Pacers had no shot. They’d be fortunate to not be bludgeoned in four games by the NBA’s top team. Somebody didn’t get the message to Pacers coach Frank Vogel because it’s obvious he hasn’t relayed that news to his team.
The Pacers have frankly outplayed the Bulls in the first two games. They’ve been the aggressors, taking the physical battle to Chicago. They’ve played a balanced offensive game, surprisingly good defense, especially on Carlos Boozer, and shown depth uncommon to the playoffs’ short rotations. But for Indiana’s inexperience and lack of a “finisher” like Derrick Rose, they could easily be up 2-0.
Coming in, the big question was what kind of performance the Pacers had to show to get interim coach Frank Vogel the full-time job. Most said be competitive, maybe swipe a game or two. After watching this young team perform for their coach in a hostile playoff environment, it’s time for GM Larry Bird to recognize that Vogel is his guy to build this team.
The Pacers were foundering, at 17-27 under the draconian rule of Jim O’Brien. Vogel, who’d never been a head coach at any level before being elevated to the Pacers job, guided the young team home at 20-17. Now that’s not going to conjure any comparisons to Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson, but Vogel’s management of a fragile young roster has been something to behold. Add to that the effort and execution we’ve seen in the first two playoff games, and it’s clear that Indiana has a coach that the players will play for. In the NBA, that’s gold.
Unlike the high school or college game, where coaches are teachers and strategists, the role of the NBA head coach is motivator and master of egos. Vogel has manipulated his rotation for maximum effectiveness, getting great play from AJ Price and rookie Paul George who had been relegated to Jim O’Brien’s dog house. He has brought along potential stars like Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert, and Tyler Hansbrough, giving them a set role that plays to their strengths. Vogel diffused the immaturity of Lance Stephenson and his potentially cancerous locker room presence by allowing Danny Granger to take the lead among the players. In short, he’s turned what could have been a disaster into a step forward for a rebuilding franchise.
In the process, he has most likely given Larry Bird the option of whether he wants to continue as Pacers GM. As the new year began, folks in Indy were calling for the head of the Indiana hoops legend. For that reason alone, Larry Bird should give Frank Vogel the keys to Conseco Fieldhouse and let him develop what can be a very powerful Pacers team.