From The Other Side: When Indiana’s Frank Vogel Got It Wrong Against John Wall
Prior to last Saturday night’s game against the Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel wrote the following words on the white bulletin board in the visitor’s locker room, “He’s a difference maker.”
The “he” was John Wall, and Coach Vogel was well-aware of Wall’s torrid play during the month of March, when he averaged 22 points and eight assists per game, also putting up a career-high 47 points against the Memphis Grizzlies. Vogel undoubtedly knew that earlier in the week, Bradley Beal, the other formidable offensive threat on the Wizards’ roster, was ruled out for the rest of the regular season with a stress injury to his right fibula. In the first game after the announcement about Beal, the Wizards lost 88-78 to the lowly Raptors in Toronto, and Wall was harassed into a 5-for-18 shooting night, including 1-for-10 outside of the paint. Coach Vogel went on to give specifics about the game plan for stopping Wall:
“He’s a sensational young talent, he changes their team offensively, and you really have to put most of your defensive game plan into limiting what he brings to the table … you still want to keep him out of the paint first, and hope that he’s not getting hot from the perimeter.”
Halfway through the first quarter, it was clear that Vogel’s game plan was not only ineffective, it was virtually non-existent. Wall had 11 points and two assists in the first six minutes of the first quarter, and he was scoring both in the paint and out of it. He finished the period with 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting and had 26 points on 12-of-15 shooting by the half. Vogel attempted to put Paul George on Wall during certain stretches in the third quarter, but Wall still scored eight points, and put his game on cruise control once the Wizards’ lead reached double figures. D.J. Augustin, George Hill, Orlando Johnson, and Gerald Green also tried their hand at stopping or slowing down the “Difference Maker,” but Wall still scored 37 points on 16-0f-25 shooting.
In Vogel’s defense, it could be argued that there was extra electricity in the building, since the Wizards were playing in front of the 1978 Washington Bullets championship team. It could also be argued that any player (particularly a No. 1 pick in the draft) is capable of getting in the proverbial zone, which renders any opposing defense powerless. In addition, if a coach takes the time to write “he’s a difference maker” on the board, the assumption (and expectation) is that someone else will have to step up with a career game. But Wall sprinted around that game plan, even though the Pacers had just as much to play for as the lowly Wizards, if not more. Not only were the Pacers embarrassed on their home floor by the Oklahama City Thunder one night before Saturday’s game, but they have been locked in a battle with the New York Knicks for the number two playoff seed in the East.
In his post-game presser, Vogel didn’t criticize his own game plan, and he didn’t pull a Doug Collins-like mea culpa by falling on his sword and blaming himself for his team’s lack of preparedness and execution. Instead, he compared Wall to Derrick Rose and blamed the Pacers’ ineffectiveness on fatigue:
Paul George seemed to agree with Vogel’s assessment that Wall was too good, and the Pacers were just too tired, when he spoke after the game:
“George Hill did a good job on him, but to counter that, John Wall was able to hit mid-range jump shots and create. He is an explosive player and is definitely someone that knows how to put the ball in the hole. We just didn’t match up. He is a confident player as well, and he has worked on his game. Now he is a problem, you have to defend his jump shot and drive.”
George was an All-Star this year (the first from Wall’s 2010 draft class), and it could be argued that he is the future of the Pacers’ franchise. But now that Danny Granger is out for the year, the leadership duties fall on the broad shoulders of center Roy Hibbert and veteran forward David West. Hibbert had a big game in his return to the Verizon Center with 25 points and 10 rebounds, but David West struggled a bit offensively with just 12 points, but he was able to grab 10 rebounds (nine defensive). Both players disagreed with Coach Vogel’s assessment that Wall was too good, and their team was too tired.
“I don’t know, it looked like we had tired legs, but that shouldn’t be any excuse. At this point in the season, you have to peak and get ready for the playoffs. Some guys that aren’t stepping it up offensively have to step it up defensively. It seemed like we were just letting them score left and right”
“You got to have resistance, you gotta make guys go through us, and we just didn’t do it tonight, we made it too easy for [Wall]. He probably had 20 points in transition by itself, it was just too easy for him. Some guys may be tired, but most of us aren’t tired. If guys are tired, they need to tell us that before the game, so we can make adjustments. At some point we gotta have some resistance. As bigs we do that, we try to make sure that we work together to guard the best big on the team, and it comes down to a pride thing. Wall should be fresh, he’s had most of the year out, and he’s trying to finish the year off strong, and go into the summer with a good feel about where his team is and where he is personally, so you gotta respect that, but again, we didn’t have enough resistance, not enough hands on him, bodies on him, things of that nature.”
It doesn’t take Hubie Brown to see or articulate that Hibbert and West did not agree with their coach’s defensive approach or his assessment on the team’s fatigue. Hibbert took the vague path by invoking the “we didn’t step up” cliché, while West was much more pointed in his criticism by saying his team was soft for not laying the wood to Wall, and selfish for not telling the coach they were tired. West was a bit hypocritical by implying that Wall’s extended absence due to injury gave him an advantage in energy level, but that was still better than the “he’s too good” approach that Vogel and George relied on after the game.
The very next night, Doc Rivers and the Boston Celtics used the very same game plan Frank Vogel claimed to have in store for the Pacers, but succeeded in keeping Wall out of the paint. Avery Bradley, who plays a brand of perimeter defense the Pacers’ guards aren’t capable of, was successful at staying in front of Wall and being physical with him in transition (something the Pacers can do, but didn’t). When Wall drove past Bradley, the Celtics ran Kevin Garnett, Shavlik Randolph, Brandon Bass and others right at him, which forced Wall to get rid of the ball or take a tough shot. He had just 16 points on 8-of-20 shooting but still managed 10 assists. Alas, the Celtics won the game, 107-96.
When it came to stopping John Wall, Doc Rivers and his Boston team (the seventh-best team in the Eastern Conference) got it right. A few nights earlier, Dwane Casey and the lottery-bound Raptors got it right, too. Frank Vogel, with as good of a season as he and his Indiana Pacers have had, got it completely wrong. It could be that the Pacers have mentally checked out of the regular season and are now preparing for their playoff run. Maybe the Wizards are simply tough to beat on their home court. But if Indiana stumbles in the playoffs, leading to an early exit, Frank Vogel’s pre- and post-game presser in Washington may turn out to be the tipping point.
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