Frank Vogel's Gamble Pays Off as Struggling Subs Shine Against Milwaukee Bucks

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Frank Vogel's Gamble Pays Off as Struggling Subs Shine Against Milwaukee Bucks
Tom Lynn

What has gotten into Frank Vogel? 

For months, the Indiana Pacers head coach had stressed the need to get the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. He did not want a repeat of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, when his boys bowed out to the Miami Heat in a Game 7 played in Miami, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:

When we lost Game 7, in the locker room, we decided. ... We just know that can be important. But it's not just about Game 7, either. If you win a game on the road, they've got to win twice in your building. And that's really hard to do.

Well, the Pacers had a glorious opportunity to take reclaim the No. 1 seed on Wednesday—the prize which had only recently been snatched from their grasp. The Heat were in a tough spot, playing the second game of a back-to-back in Memphis against a tough Grizzlies team desperate for a win to stay in the playoff hunt. The Pacers, meanwhile had only to beat the worst team in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks.

But the coach risked what was likely a certain victory with an incredibly bold gambit. He rested his starters against the Bucks...not one or two, but all of them. None of the Pacers' usual starting five—George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert—played a single minute against Milwaukee.

Instead, Vogel placed the Pacers' fate in the hands of their much-maligned bench. It was a stunning move from a coach who hadn't bothered to rest a starter all season (George, Stephenson and Hibbert each played all 78 games for Indy, while Hill and West had missed five and two games to injury, respectively). 

And his plan paid off...barely. In a game that was more exciting than it had any right to be, forward Chris Copeland scored on a drive to the hoop with 1.2 seconds left to send the Pacers to a 104-102 victory.

Of course, Indiana could have avoided Copeland's last-second heroics altogether if it had taken care of business in the previous 20.1 seconds. The Pacers held what looked to be an insurmountable 101-97 lead with 21.3 ticks left on the clock but missed three out of four free throws, allowed a layup and fouled a three-point shooter to allow the Bucks to draw back even.

But beggars can't be choosers. The struggling, worn-out Pacers needed wins and rest, and they got a little bit of both on Wednesday.

 

The Other Guys

Beyond the obvious story of Indiana's starters getting a much-needed bit of down time, the next most common narrative coming out of Wednesday's game was the confidence of Indiana's second unit. Copeland spoke of the positive feelings he and his bench mates shared after the win, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com):

It's big for our confidence, the second unit. Just to get the opportunity out there. A lot of us have been waiting for that all year. So it was very cool for us to get out there and get a win and show the starters that we've got their backs when they need rest.

So will this win jump-start the struggling bench? Probably not. The lack of performance by the reserves has been a sore spot in Indy over the past few seasons. The front office has repeatedly tried to address this weakness, both in the offseason and at the trade deadline, only to be met with more failure. 

Indiana traded for sweet-shooting big man Luis Scola in the offseason, only to see his offensive efficiency numbers fall off a cliff, per Basketball-Reference.com. Grantland's Zach Lowe believes the 33-year-old Scola to be "in major decline."

In February the Pacers traded their longest-tenured player, Danny Granger, for former No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner in an effort to fix their second-unit offense. That too hasn't worked.

Per Basketball-Reference.com, Scola (minus-0.6 offensive win shares) and Turner (minus-0.4 offensive win shares) have cost the team more on offense than any two other players. That is a serious handicap to this team, which already struggles to get adequate scoring from its starters.

While Scola (24 points) and Turner (23 points) were the team's highest scorers against the Bucks, Turner, in particular, already proved that he could put up big numbers (with nothing to show for it) during his time in Philly, where he averaged 17.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists before being traded to Indy.

The Pacers don't need a guy who can rattle off 20 points against the league's bottom feeders. They need players who can come into the game for the starters and at least hold the lead. Neither Scola nor Turner has been that kind of player.

Even after Wednesday's game, Scola had a minus-8.1 on/off rating, while Turner an incomprehensibly terrible minus-12.6—meaning the Pacers have been getting killed every time these guys come into the game.

So why would this two-point win against a 14-64 Bucks team change any of that?

 

The End Game

The Heat did indeed lose on Wednesday, so the Pacers have moved one game ahead in the win column in the race for the No. 1 seed.

But the real test is yet to come. Indiana will play the Heat on Friday in Miami. 

The good news for the Pacers is that they will still hold the the division record tiebreaker, even if the Heat win. And that could give them some leeway over the season's last few games, per CBS Sports' Matt Moore:

Frank Vogel placed his faith in the Pacers bench (not to mention the awfulness of the Bucks) and was rewarded. Indiana is now in a good position to claim home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

But do not mistake this game as some kind of turning point for the Indiana bench. If the Pacers are to advance in the postseason, they will have to do what they did in the first half of this season, by riding their starting five.

 

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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