ATLANTA -- Frank Vogel understood the question. It's one he has been asked a thousand times. How can the Pacers play like this? How can they be this...average? How can a team that pushed Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season and was 46 and freaking 10 in the middle of this season have fallen apart so fast?
Advice has come from everywhere. Head coaches. Assistant coaches. College coaches. In a quiet moment outside the Indiana locker room, Vogel let slip a smile when it was brought up again.
"It's not really that confusing," Vogel told SI.com. "It's not all on one player but we have a center that's struggling, and that impacts a lot of our offensive efficiency. But he dominates the rim on the other end. It's easy to say, 'Oh, well just take him out.' But we would get impacted on the other end. I believe in Roy [Hibbert]. We're choosing to try to maintain our defensive edge and do what we can to get the offense clicking."
Hibbert is a conundrum. Not since Chuck Knoblauch has a professional player so good deteriorated so quickly. In the first half of the season, Hibbert averaged 11.8 points and 7.7 rebounds, shooting 46.4 percent from the floor. In the second half, Hibbert's numbers dipped to 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds, shooting 39 percent from the field. In the first five games against Atlanta, Hibbert averaged 4.8 points (on 31.3 percent shooting) and 3.4 rebounds.
In Indiana's elimination-saving 95-88 win over the Hawks in Game 6, Hibbert had more fouls (four) than points (zero) and rebounds (two) combined. He played the first seven minutes of the game, then was pulled. He was benched to start the second half in favor of Ian Mahinmi. He played five minutes in the final 24. He bit hard on pump fakes from Pero Antic and was outmuscled for rebounds by Paul Millsap. When Indiana needed to plug a big man alongside David West, Mahinmi and seldom-used Chris Copeland got the call.
Chris Copeland. The averaged 3.7 points in 6.5 minutes per game during the regular season Chris Copeland.
It's easy to hammer Vogel for not going to a smaller lineup sooner. His players wanted it. Paul George publicly called for it. But Vogel has to think big picture with Hibbert. He needs to keep whatever is left of Hibbert's confidence intact. Say Indiana goes on to beat Atlanta in Game 7. Next up is Washington and its burly frontcourt of Nene and Marcin Gortat. A small lineup won't do the Pacers much good there. They need Hibbert, and they need him to know the coaching staff has not given up on him.
"[Small lineups] are not something that, philosophically, I'm really against as a coach," Vogel said. "It's just how our team is built. We've had success with it. I think you can have success with small lineups. But there is a risk. You have to change some things with how you play."
It is a risk, especially against a Hawks team that believes it should be the favorite. Mike Budenholzer stepped up onto the dais late Thursday, congratulated the Pacers and stated the obvious: His team blew this one. Atlanta missed 25 three-pointers -- many were of the wide open variety -- shot 35.8 percent from the floor and coughed up an early 11-point lead. Yet there were the Hawks, in a tie game with a little over a minute to play. "We still put ourselves in a position to win a game when we didn't play our best on either end," Budenholzer said.
Yes, Atlanta is still confident headed into Game 7. "We'll just play our style of basketball," Paul Millsap said. And why shouldn't they be? The Hawks missed a lot of open shots in Game 6. They weren't barking at each other after a botched play. That was Indiana. Lance Stephenson is arguably the Pacers' most effective two-way player but his recklessness is a concern. Indiana couldn't get the ball into Hibbert when he was defended by Jeff Teague early in the fourth quarter. And the Pacers will hold their breaths as the NBA decides whether the few steps George took onto the floor during an altercation between George Hill and Mike Scott in the second quarter warrants a suspension.
Indiana heads home in a position it worked to be in all season: In Bankers Life Fieldhouse for a deciding game. But the Pacers know that guarantees nothing. In the locker room before the game on Thursday, West issued a challenge: Play hard all the way through. If things start to unravel, focus on the basics. Keep your man in front of you. If they score on us, go right back and score on them. Don't let down. Keep fighting. It worked, but it's impossible to predict if it will again. The sturdy defense that has been a staple the last two years was back in Game 6, but it has come and gone. The offense put up enough points but remains isolation heavy and dependent on West and George to make tough plays.
Another elimination game is coming, and the Pacers know what is at stake. A win puts Indiana in a second round series with Washington, keeps it on track toward what was once thought of as an inevitable showdown with Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. A loss sends the Pacers off into an uncertain future.
"We played all year for this, to get Game 7's in our building," West said. "The energy is going to be great. We just have to handle our business.