The fact that the Indiana Pacers rank fifth in the NBA with 44.6 rebounds per game and third in points allowed isn’t a fluke.
For Indiana, that toughness on the glass and on the defensive end is part of the smashmouth basketball their head coach wants them to play with this season.
“We want teams to feel like they were in a heavyweight fight after they played against us,” head coach Frank Vogel joked with the media this weekend. “We want to play physical inside and be the stronger team.”
While Vogel may have made that comment in jest, the reality is Indiana takes great pride in being a mentally and physically tough basketball team.
“We’re a tough team,” Paul George boasted. “The biggest thing that we have is everybody is in for one another. If somebody is getting a little too aggressive with one of our players, one of our players is taking it right back at him. That’s just an example of how we have each other’s backs out there on the court. When we’re all tied in together like we are, we’re a tough team to beat.”
Solidarity is great, but playing smashmouth basketball is more than having each other’s back, playing stingy defense and gobbling up rebounds.
For Indiana, it incorporates both sides of the ball, and the Pacers have done a great job reshaping their offense to open up easy scoring opportunities.
“We completely reshaped our spacing so that on 99 percent of sets two bigs are at the basket,” Vogel told the media earlier this season. “One will be on the post or baseline with the other rolling to the basket. We are designed to be a strong offensive rebounding team.”
Instead of relying on just their frontcourt, Indiana also has their guards penetrating the paint and attacking the basket while their bigs play through the post.
“Part of our smashmouth attack involves playing with size and strength,” Vogel explained. “We want out guards attacking the basket. We want our bigs playing through the post. This summer we shaped all of our spacing so that we don’t have very many lifts sets where we have a big out near the three-point line. We try to have one of our bigs along the baseline or in front of the basket at all times and the other one is rolling.”
While that may sound complicated the whole premise of the switch in the way Indiana’s offense was tweaked was done to make things more simplistic and basic.
“We simplified things dramatically from the standpoint of putting more of an emphasis on spacing and constant movement,” Vogel said. “It’s a contrast to what we had in the past. I think a lot of those things allowed us to be more stable in our roles and better readers of an opposing defense. When you know where the other four guys on the floor are going to be at all times, it allows you to be a better reader of pin downs, pick-and-rolls and all kinds of action.”
Along with being more stable, it’s also done with maximizing the strengths of the players currently on the roster.
“We tried to structure our offense in a way that really took advantage of our personnel’s strengths,” Vogel explained. “Roy Hibbert is a good passer at the high-post, but we wanted him to become a dominant low-post threat and I think he has done that. We wanted that ball in Darren Collison’s hands to run the team in the early offense, on the break and in a great deal of pick-and-rolls. We shaped our spacing so that so that our power forwards weren’t lifted above the three-point line so that Tyler Hansborough could be more successful when he was in the game.”
Besides shifting the offensive and defensive sets, there has been a huge change in the culture in the locker room.
Instead of a single-minded approach to the game where players looked to stuff the stat sheet, Indiana has adopted a team-first approach that has seen Boston and Dallas win Championships.
“Since I’ve taken over, all I’ve talked about is togetherness,” Vogel told me.
“I never worked for Doc Rivers, but one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in watching the Playoffs—and I’m one of those guys, I watch every single one of those games—and just following that team. When KG first got there, the culture changed, yes, but he used the word togetherness on an almost daily basis. I think that they won a Championship because of their team play, not because of their Hall-of-Fame talent. I just think that there is a strong message behind that so I put togetherness on the board every single day in practice, shoot-around and for games.”
Besides being able to point at the success Boston has enjoyed, another great template for his team to look at was the Championship run made by Dallas last season.
“I think another great lesson was Dallas winning a Championship last year,” Vogel raved. “The whole concept of a team beating any ‘Big Three’ is something I’ve preached to my team all year last year in the hopes that we would be able to upset Miami in the Playoffs.
“We didn’t get matched up with them, but to see Dallas go through and do it, and do it with unselfishness and passing. Not just to do it against Miami, but to do it and sweep the Lakers. A two-time defending Champions. They swept the Lakers with tremendous passing and unselfishness. There is a tremendous lesson to be learned by that and it is something that I talk with my guys about all the time. When they share the ball they know they can be scary good.”
Even though smashmouth basketball has lead Indiana to a 8-3 record and the praise of their head coach, it still isn’t something that fans clamor to see. Because of this the Pacers won’t find themselves playing on ESPN or TNT too much this season.
Without the glare of the national spotlight, it also means that casual fans aren’t as familiar with the team.
“That’s fine, we’re the best kept secret,” Roy Hibbert said at Friday night’s game on ESPN. “They can play Boston and Chicago on ESPN, but we’re the best kept secret. That’s fine with us.”
Or, as George Hill said a bit more eloquently, there’s no reason to worry about people who throw bricks on you when you’re down.
“We aren’t worried about the media giving us love,” Hill told me. “I mean, when the boat is above water, everybody is going to jump on. When it’s sinking they keep throwing bricks on you. We just need to focus on the guys in the locker room. The more we aren’t talked about the more we can sneak up on people.”
Their brand of basketball may allow Indiana to sneak up on teams because they won’t show up on SportsCenter like Lob City or the Miami Heat do, but rest assured, teams won’t be quick to forget them after they get beat around like a heavyweight in a 10-round battle.
Chalk it up to the war wounds sustained after going into battle against the Pacers and their version of smashmouth basketball.