I am telling Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel he should get serious consideration for NBA Coach of the Year.
"(The Bulls') Tom Thibodeau,'' he says quickly before the Pacers' memorable 112-104 comeback victory over the New York Knicks. "With team success comes all the individual stuff. Without Derrick Rose (who has missed time with injuries)?''
He shakes his head.
Yes, Tom Thibodeau. He's got to be the front-runner. And San Antonio's eternally excellent coach, Gregg Popovich, deserves a mention with the way he has massaged an aging and sometimes injured roster. Doug Collins in Philly has done a nice job, although his team is flailing.
But Vogel has to be in the conversation. In the first paragraph of the conversation. Maybe the first or second sentence.
Before Tuesday's game, Vogel forcefully made the point that he would not match New York's small lineup with a small lineup of his own. He would continue to go big with a post-up game and impose the Pacers' will (and size) on the smaller Knicks.
Then the Knicks, playing small ball to near perfection, using Carmelo Anthony at the power forward, opened a 17-point third-quarter lead and led by 15 after three quarters.
At which point, Vogel looked at his assistant coaches and said, "We've got to go small.''
Nods all around.
And so, the Pacers went small.
And then they went nuts, with George Hill, Leandro Barbosa and Lou Amundson playing the entire quarter, with Danny Granger playing 11:49 and Paul George playing 9:16.
The Pacers went on 14-0 run. A 20-2 run. A 27-4 run. A 40-17 fourth quarter. Bankers Life Fieldhouse came alive the way it did back in the days when Reggie Miller made his living in these kinds of fourth quarters.
"A genius move,'' Granger said with a smile, referring to the decision to go small.
Amundson, who was a monster in that fourth quarter, continually did what Roy Hibbert couldn't do the first three quarters: When the Knicks trapped off ball screens, he slipped the screen -- a "nail screen'' -- ran to the free throw line, got the ball there and found open shooters.
That is, when he wasn't chasing down loose balls, tapping back offensive rebounds and generally making a nuisance of himself.
"Give Frank a lot of credit,'' Amundson said. "There are a lot of coaches who are tempted to go back with their starters when they start to feel comfortable where the game is. But he stayed with us and let us rock.''
It also doesn't hurt that Granger is playing his best basketball of the season these past two weeks. After a 32-point night at Houston, he had 27 points and seven rebounds against the Knicks and did a decent-enough job against Anthony in the fourth quarter. Granger has scored 25 points or more in six games.
"He's playing his best ball of the season,'' Vogel said. "When your best player is dialed in like that, it elevates the play of everybody around him.''
It wasn't Reggie-esque, but No. 31 would have been proud -- especially as it came against Spike Lee's Knicks. Granger hit all three of his 3-point tries and scored 14 points in that fourth quarter.
Coach of the Year?
Vogel's got a case.
He's got an even stronger case to have that third year, now a team option, fully guaranteed by upper management. What else do they need to see? He has taken a wounded, defeated team and in a short time, first as an interim coach and then in a lockout-shortened year, established himself as the man for the job long term.
In 91 games -- the last 38 of last season, the first 53 of this one -- Vogel's Pacers are 52-39.
If the Pacers can go on a run here -- nine of their next 13 games are at home -- Vogel may get some play as a serious candidate for Coach of the Year.
He came in as Dr. Feelgood, propping up a team that had been beaten down by Jim O'Brien's relentless negativity. And then, about three weeks into his interim season, he started bringing the hammer down. And players who wondered if he could be tough took notice.
"Those first three weeks, absolutely, it was all 'It's OK. It's OK,' " Vogel said. "But then toward the end of the season, I became more of a hard-***. When the bottom line comes around, every day you've got to drill habits. Every day, we watch tape and call them out if they're not doing the right things. Every day, you've got to be a hard-*** about things.
"But you've got to know when they need a hug and when they need somebody to come down hard on them.''
Who has done more with his team than Vogel with these Pacers?
The answer, best I can tell, is nobody.
Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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