Reserves helping move Pacers forward
The mission of the Pacers’ front office over the summer was to improve the bench. And while there were times during the season their success could be questioned, the playoffs have offered positive proof.
There’s no need for Donnie Walsh or Kevin Pritchard to defend themselves. The numbers make the case for them. In the six games of last season’s second-round series with Miami, the Pacers’ reserves combined to hit just 52-of-142 shots, including 3-of-22 three-pointers. With only two holdovers from that group – Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Pendergraph – the bench players have hit 24-of-48 shots, including 9-of-16 three-pointers, through the first four games of the second-round series with New York.
Coach Frank Vogel has left his starters’ collective tongue dragging, with each of them averaging at least 37:16 minutes against the Knicks. Paul George, who’s assigned the task of containing Carmelo Anthony — and when he’s not busy doing that, J.R. Smith – has averaged 45:02 minutes. Still, the recent play of the backups has enabled Vogel to remove some of the seat belts on the bench.
George Hill, for example, dominated the third quarter in the Pacers’ 93-82 victory on Tuesday, scoring 14 of his 26 points. Vogel gave him a break in favor of D.J. Augustin to start the fourth quarter, and Augustin played well enough that Hill didn’t return until 4:05 remained, at which point the Pacers had extended their lead from 11 at the start of the period to 15.
Augustin scored just four points in a 9 minute, 17 second appearance in the fourth quarter, but didn’t commit a turnover and kept the offense running smoothly. No negatives can equal a positive. He actually finished with a better plus/minus rating (+9) in his 21 minutes than Hill did in his 37 minutes (+6).
The bench would be stronger, of course, if Danny Granger had not missed all but five games of the season. Lance Stephenson likely would be part of the reserve lineup if Granger were playing, and while he wouldn’t have progressed as much as he has getting all those starter’s minutes, he’d still strengthen the second unit.
Vogel is being rewarded for his patience. He’s had no choice. His backups have been as erratic as Spring weather, each of them playing well at times but none of them playing well consistently throughout the season. Figuring out who to put into the rotation has been as much a guessing game as strategic ploy.
Augustin fell out of the rotation early in the season, but has been at least solid since, and lately has been very good, such as while scoring 16 points off the bench in Game 1 against the Knicks. Manhimi was bad enough in Game 1 against the Knicks to lose his spot to Jeff Pendergraph at a crucial time in Game 2, but has grabbed 10 rebounds in 16 minutes over the past two games. Sam Young had an embarrassing turn in Game 1, committing three turnovers in less than six minutes, but Vogel has gone back to him in each game. Young scored five points and had no turnovers in less than six minutes on Tuesday, hitting a three-pointer and contributing to the defensive lockdown of the Knicks.
Tyler Hansbrough, who was outstanding as a starter when David West sat out with a back injury, has averaged just 3.8 points in this series, but has continued to do what he does best: irritate. Gerald Green has only played in one game, for six minutes, but scored seven points in the garbage time of Game 2. He’s the guy, remember, who scored 34 points in the relatively meaningless final regular season game, and is the least predictable – but also most explosive – member of the group.
If the Pacers were a singing group, they would be an in-sync collection in which the backups are harmonizing well, and able to step forward for the occasional solo turn when necessary. That didn’t happen last season against the Heat.
“That’s what we try to preach with those guys, starters too, but with the bench guys in particular,” Vogel said Wednesday, before the team left for New York. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing two minutes, 12 minutes, 24 minutes, you got to impact the game in a positive way in whatever minutes you get.”
Hill put it another way.
“We’re a deep team, and the way we played tonight, we can be a great team,” he said Tuesday. “Everybody had a hand in the pile.”
It’s impossible to predict what the reserves will do going forward. The certainty is, they’ll be needed to keep the pile moving forward.