- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was certainly a game played to Frank Vogel’s liking: messy, slow and at times downright unwatchable. Vogel called it Smash-Mouth Basketball during his five and a half seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.
But Monday saw Vogel on the other end of the court, making his first trip to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as an opposing coach. Vogel, now at the helm of the Orlando Magic, had to ask for directions to the visiting team’s locker room.
The evening began with tender moments between Vogel and his former team -- fans gave a stirring ovation during pre-game introductions, and Paul George, Monta Ellis and Myles Turner each gave their former coach a hug before tip-off.
But the Pacers weren’t there for nostalgia and friendly vibes. They were there for a win, for some answers.
While Indiana achieved the former, routing the Magic 88-69 in a forgettable game that will rightly be lost to history, the latter remains T.B.D. Although the Pacers did show modest reason for encouragement.
First and foremost, George is healthy. The three-time All-Star returned after sitting out Saturday’s loss to Boston with a sprained ankle, albeit a step slower and more reserved in his play. George finished with just 13 points and made only 5 of his 16 attempts from the floor.
“It was alright,” George said regarding his injury. “I didn’t have too much pop to it… a lot of finishes on a lot of jump shots, some of them were flat. I couldn’t elevate well at all. For the most part, I was fine, I wasn’t concerned.
George said the ankle is still not fully healed and that he will continue working back into his full basketball regimen in time for Wednesday’s home contest against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
- Phil Taylor
Another encouraging sign was the play of reserve center Kevin Seraphin, who played a season-high 19 minutes to score six points, grab 10 rebounds and block one shot. Despite the deceptively meager stat line, he sported a plus-minus of 14 in part because of his defense of Orlando’s Bismack Biyombo.
Biyombo came off the bench and took over in rapid fashion, chipping in six points, grabbing five rebounds and burying Pacers center Al Jefferson with the thunderous dunk in just 5:49 of play. At that point, it was a 19-16 Magic lead.
Recognizing the mismatch, McMillan swapped the overwhelmed Jefferson for the unproven Seraphin and was rewarded for his trust in the enigmatic Frenchman. So long as Seraphin remained on the court, Biyombo was a non factor -- scoring just three points the rest of the game.
“Seraphin is a good player and Al has been struggling,” Vogel said. “And that adjustment gave them a large boost.”
Large for this game, sure. But the Pacers desperately need a back-up big who can contribute on a nightly basis. Jefferson has failed to do so thus far, looking as if he aged exponentially during the off-season. He is shooting a career-low 46.8 percent -- despite taking the bulk of his shots within 10 feet of the rim -- and provides scant rim protection.
If Seraphin can string similar performances together, he may soon be taking Big Al’s spot in the rotation.
To be fair to Jefferson, hardly anyone on this team is contributing on defense. The team ranks 26th in defensive efficiency and has little hope of cracking the top half of the league at any point this season.
Yes, the Pacers held the Magic to an abysmal 66 points and did gave their best defensive performance of the season thus far. But what does it mean if it comes against the 25th best offense? It means it’s a start.
“We just have to work together,” Turner said. “It’s isn’t so much scheme as it is the personnel. There’s a lot of new guys in here and we’re still trying to play together. Hopefully tonight is something we can build off of.”
Hopefully so, indeed. If Orlando’s subterranean offense proves to be nothing but a ruse for an ailing Pacers defense, LeBron James will be one hell of a wake-up call.