INDIANAPOLIS -- In the winter of 2006, Frank Vogel took a call from an old friend: Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. Nearly a year earlier, Vogel had been part of a purge in Philadelphia that saw Jim O'Brien fired, and Vogel, his promising young assistant, pushed out along with him. Pitino, who had just lost one of his top lieutenants, Kevin Willard, to the University of Delaware, was calling to offer Vogel, his former video coordinator in Boston, a job on his staff. Vogel was ready to accept -- until Delaware rescinded the offer to Willard, citing a DUI arrest in 2004.
Vogel stayed in the NBA, in scouting, and in 2007 was added to O'Brien's staff in Indiana. Vogel took over for O'Brien in the middle of the 2010-11 season and has been the Pacers steady hand ever since. In Indiana, his influence is everywhere, from the rise to stardom of Paul George to the rapid development of Roy Hibbert. And they were in the locker room on Tuesday, delivering a simple message to a team that just played one of its worst first halves of the season, a 40-point, 13-turnover debacle to hated rival Miami.
In the quiet of the Indiana locker room, Vogel was brief: We're going to win. Clean up our mistakes, Vogel told the group, and we will win. There was no uncertainty in his voice, not a trace of doubt. Just the confidence that when his team was on, they can beat anyone. And they did: Indiana sprinted past Miami with a 28-17 third quarter en route to a 90-84 win.
For all the hype surrounding Indiana this season, remember: This is a team of overachievers. There is no top-five pick in the Pacers starting lineup, no chosen one. The superstar is George, the 10th pick in the 2010 draft, scooped up after the likes of Wesley Johnson and Ekpe Udoh. The power player is Hibbert (17th in '08), who few thought would develop the strength and skill to be a starting center. The defensive stopper is Lance Stephenson (40th in 2010), passed over -- repeatedly in some cases -- because of questionable character. Even free agent signee David West (18th in 2003) and George Hill (26th in '08), acquired via trade, came into the NBA with something to prove.
In Vogel, the Pacers have a coach who shares their relentless work ethic, who wasn't gift wrapped his opportunity because of a storied playing career or a glitzy résumé in the college ranks. He is one of them. He is them.
"I believed in him since Day 1," George said. "He was my coach in summer league, when I first got to the league. That was my guy. He had total belief in me. I have total belief in him."
Added Hibbert: "We used to have so many talks together. He would always tell me, 'Hey kid, you are going to be good.' He believes in me. He is positive. He is inspiring.
"He's the Coach of the Year."
Indiana is a team on a mission, and Tuesday night's win was just the latest statement. It didn't look like the Pacers night early. George bricked all four of his attempts in the first half, locked down by LeBron James and a tight Miami defense. The Pacers were beaten up in the paint (24-20) and the sloppy play gave the Heat opportunity after opportunity to stretch the lead.
"We were shell-shocked," West said. "We weren't taking the fight to them. We were just out there, too lax."
A year ago, Indiana might have folded. "Early last season, we didn't believe we were going to win every game," West said. Not this time, not this year. In the second half, the Pacers went back to basics. They pounded the ball into Hibbert (24 points). They engineered more offense for George (17 points). On cue, Indiana ratcheted up the defense, the physical play and left Miami in the dust.
"They are a very good defensive team," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "They just played better than us down the stretch."
A quarter of the way into the NBA season, the Pacers are the class of the league. The defense, the NBA's best in 2012-13, remains stout. George picked up right where he left in the playoffs, adding an improved three-point shot (42.6 percent) to a Tracy McGrady-like offensive game. Hibbert has vowed to challenge for Defensive Player of the Year while remaining a formidable force in the post. And Stevenson has added a polished offensive arsenal to his sturdy defense on the perimeter.
To a man, the Pacers are relentless in their pursuit of the conference's No. 1 seed, determined to play any Game 7 in the postseason in the cozy confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. George, Hibbert and Stephenson have taken the disappointment of last season's failure and injected it into their collective bloodstream, a shot of fuel to run the extra mile, to take the extra shot.
The Pacers won't proclaim themselves championship favorites. Not now, not ever. They deflected question after question about the significance of the win after the game, refusing to give the Heat anything to hook on to. They know Miami will be lurking in May, and with home court or not the Heat will be a formidable foe. "We won a game," West said. "Nothing else." Yet there is no doubt the quiet confidence inside the Indiana locker room is growing by the day. From the head coach to the players, they believe they belong among the best.