NEW YORK -- In the bowels of the Barclays Center, Frank Vogel leaned against a Pacers banner, tie loosened, a grin splitting his face. It would have been so easy. Playing its second straight game, playing its fourth game in five nights, Indiana could have taken Saturday off. The Pacers were 6-0, with a defense that was keeping assistant coaches up nights and a burgeoning superstar in Paul George that was staving off sleep during the days, too.
The Nets were 2-4, in desperate need of a win, and the Pacers, having landed in New York at 4:30 a.m., were in need of a break.
It didn't matter. Not now, not this season. On tired legs, the Pacers muscled their way past Brooklyn, 96-91. They outrebounded the Nets, 42-38. They connected on 50 percent of their three-point attempts. Behind an efficient performance from George (24 points, six rebounds), the Pacers marched to a 7-0 start, the best in franchise history.
With a deep and talented roster and a chip on its shoulder the size of the state capital, Indiana has made a statement in these opening weeks. Last June, George sat on the Pacers bench steaming, the full effects of a 99-76 loss to Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals washing over him. George hated losing, but he hated how Indiana lost most of all. "I was tired," George said. "I didn't have the energy, I wasn't able to push through. I didn't want that feeling again." In the locker room after the game, George's voice pierced the silence. Be happy with what we accomplished, George said. But don't be satisfied.
"I wanted them to come back with the mindset that we do have something special here," George said. "I really wanted us to work."
Vogel did, too. No one treasures coaching more than Vogel, Indiana's 40-year-old leader with a boyishness that makes him look 10 years younger. Vogel still enjoys the game the same way he did in his days as a video coordinator under Rick Pitino, and as an assistant coach under Jim O'Brien. One of Jason Kidd's first comments before the game was how well coached Indiana was, a sentiment that has swept league-wide. Vogel is part of the new wave of NBA head coaches -- a group that includes Erik Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau -- who weren't elevated to their position because of a glittering college résumé or success as a player in the pro ranks. They are grinders. They earned their spots through countless hours in the film room, through even more individual work. When O'Brien was let go in January, 2011, Vogel was able to transition seamlessly to the top job because of his players' unflinching faith in him.
As much as any player, Indiana has assumed Vogel's identity. And in the quiet of the Pacers locker room last June, Vogel reminded his team of what they had accomplished that season. He reminded them of a comic he had seen in the Indianapolis Star. In it, a young boy is seen removing pictures of Peyton Manning from his bedroom wall and replacing them with photos of George, Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson.
"It was a profound statement of what we are able to accomplish," Vogel said. "We teased a fan base, got them all behind us. The moment was a disappointment but we had to absorb it, and then get back to work."
And they did. Fueled by a 10th place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, Roy Hibbert packed on 11 pounds of muscle and is averaging 4.2 blocks per game this season. A defensive stopper last season, Lance Stephenson polished his jump shot and is averaging 14.2 points this season. The front office bolstered the bench, adding Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, while Danny Granger -- who is sidelined with a calf injury -- will add an All-Star scorer to the lineup upon his return.
And then there is George. Four days per week, George ran through the steep Southern California hills, the memory of Game 7 pushing him an extra day, an extra mile. He honed his ball handling and diversified his offensive repertoire. After shooting 41.9 percent last season, George is up to 46.7 percent this season. After being named the NBA's Most Improved Player, George has the look of an MVP candidate.
"He's one of the most complete players in the game," Vogel said.
Added Hibbert, "Reggie [Miller] is the man in terms of Pacers legacy. I can see [George] surpassing him. He won't say it, but I will. He's aspiring to be great."
There will be no easy wins against Indiana, no games the Pacers will take off. Vogel makes no secret of his desire for the No. 1 overall seed. Indiana was 8-1 at home during last season's playoff run, and with a rugged gauntlet of teams standing in the Pacers' way this season, Indiana wants to ensure any decisive game is played on its home floor.
Here comes Indiana, its strength overwhelming, its flaws becoming harder and harder to find. And as he leaned against that wall on Saturday night, Vogel paused to consider a question about the difference in mindset of his locker room this season.
"They had the right attitude this summer," Vogel said. "They want to take the next step."