Along with all of the regular All-Star weekend activities comes the usual deluge of media availability. Today, Frank Vogel joined ESPN's Mike and Mike in the morning to reflect on the Pacers' season thus far, comment on the development of his young stars, make a distinction between earning respect and achieving greatness, and discuss what makes him believe his team is ready to make the jump to the NBA Finals. Below are Coach Vogel's responses to paraphrased questions.
To what degree is your season all about staying ahead of Miami?
Vogel: It is a big part of it. We set out a goal to try to get home court advantage so that we could have that sort of edge in the playoffs no matter who we were facing - first round, second round, third round, as deep as you want to go. Obviously, those guys are the champs. Staying above them is something we do talk about. It's really just about staying on top more than anything.
How do you balance the goal of getting the top seed at the end of the season while balancing the need for rest?
Vogel: You have to balance it. Obviously, nothing is won in the regular season. Once we get to that point we will decide if guys need to rest some or manage their bodies better so that they are sharp in the playoffs. Then certainly we will make that decision. We have a lot of young guys on our team. Two of our main guys - Paul George and Lance Stephenson - are 23 years old. Roy Hibbert and George Hill are in their sixth year, I think. We'll manage their legs and make sure they're sharp for the playoffs, but we do believe in trying to get that edge.
A lot of people around the league were disappointed and surprised that Lance Stephenson did not make the All-Star team. What are your thoughts on that?
Vogel: Myself included. I think he was definitely an All-Star this year. Really competed at a high level... I think three, or maybe four now, triple doubles. Just a complete player - passing the basketball. He does so much for our offense with our running game, passing the basketball, scoring the basketball, rebounding the basketball. He gives us a little bit of a swagger and an edge out there.
What do you see in Paul George's progression, and how much better is he now than he was?
Vogel: Each year you expect him to get a little bit better, and he gets a lot better. It is a credit to his hard work, his internal drive, and hunger. He wants to be great. You see the things that Kevin Durant and LeBron are able to do, and he wants to be in that conversation. He wants to achieve those goals individually, but as a team, as well.
The Pacers have been knocking on the door. What is the biggest reason your team can close the deal this time?
Vogel: I think we are a step further with our experience. We were so young in the playoffs last year. Experience, or any one thing, does not mean you can dethrone the champs, but that is what we are all working towards. We are working towards tying together all the fundamentals on both ends of the court, and, hopefully, just that experience of having been there on the court last year in the conference finals. Maybe were a little bit older, a little more experienced, a little wiser, and, hopefully, that puts us over the top.
Even though you're up in the conference by 2.5 games, is there a chip on your team's shoulders about their perception in comparison to Miami?
Vogel: Well, I don't know, I think there has been something made about that in the past, but I think we are reaching the point now where we are sort of being recognized as one of the best teams in the league. I do not think it is about competing for respect. I think we're getting plenty of attention from anyone. It is really about, we want to be champions. We want to take on all comers, and see what we can make happen. It is really about achieving that greatness more than earning respect.
Later on in the day, Paul George sat down with ESPN's Sage Steele and Tim Legler live on SportsCenter to chat about his reaction to being an All-Star starter, what it has been like being "the guy" for the Pacers, and why just because the Pacers want home court advantage does not mean they think winning the title will be easy. Below are Paul George's answers to various paraphrased questions.
What was your genuine reaction to hearing the news that you would be an All-Star starter?
George: I was excited. I am not going to lie. It was an overwhelming feeling to get to this where I am at right now. A lot of guys come into the league with fans and a nice little fanbase, and I came in with nothing so it is great to be where I am at right now. I was ecstatic.
Compare Paul George now, the best two-way player in the game according to your former assistant coach, to who Paul George was a year ago as a player.
George: I think it has been a night and day turn around. Offensively, I feel like I am able to carry an offense. I have the confidence to take tough shots. Take the shots when my team needs me to. I still carry that edge on the defensive end to guard the best guy, and wanting to guard the best guy. I take it as a fun match-up. A lot of guys can do it for spot minutes within a game. I love doing it for the whole game. Giving my team an edge going into a game.
You're in your fourth year. LeBron James, by the time you came into the league had already won a couple MVPs, Kevin Durant was already one of the top guys in the league (probably top two guys in this league). Now here you are in year four. How does that blow your mind to hear LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul George, those are the top three players in the league?
George: Thank you. I just want to get better. I want to be, someday soon, I want to be at the top of this league and be in the position where LeBron is and where Kevin is. As far as being the top small forward and the top player in this league, I got my work cut out for me, but I have always been motivated to get better. And always wanting to go into the summer add new things, and just being a student of the game. I feel like I am in a great situation to get better, and I have great people behind me supporting me.
You made it a public mission to get the top seed in the Eastern Conference this year, so if you were back in that situation (the Eastern Conference Finals), Game 7 would be in your building. How do you guys feel about where you are as we head into the homestretch relative to the expectations you guys had?
George: We have been getting a lot of criticism on the fact that just because we voiced our opinion about having home court advantage that we think it is going to be easy to win a championship. We just like our chances playing in our building in a Game 7. As of now, we are one of the best, probably the best, on our floor. In the postseason last year, we were the best team playing on our home floor. We are confident we can play well in a seven game series when we have that advantage at home.
What needs to happen for you guys to take care of your business this time? What if it is not in Indianapolis, if it is in Miami? What's going to be the difference this season versus last year?
George: Defense. We just got to be consistent on the defensive end. Offensively, we got guys that can make shots and make plays down the stretch when we need to. I think Larry Bird said it best. We cut down our turnovers, cut down ball holding, and not moving the ball, and then we are going to be fine. Like I said, we got guys that can make plays. Defense, we just got to hang our hat on.
Could Lance Stephenson be the difference in getting over that final hurdle and getting to the Finals?
George: I think so. I think Lance will be our X factor. You talk about the guys that really shine in the playoffs - Lance is one of those guys. You need somebody that is going to be edgy, who is going to have a toughness, who is going to make plays, be able break plays to make plays, and he has that ability to be a one man break and create his own offense. His ability to rebound at his position is special. He's our X factor. He is one of those players you need in the playoffs.
Do you put a lot of thought into doing something special in the dunk contest?
George: I do. This time around especially, because the first time around I thought I did something special, and it did not work out. This time I went to the drawing board, and pulled out the lost files of 2012.
How have you handled being "the guy" and how would you like to improve?
George: Well, I think I have handled it pretty well. It is still new to me, and there is a lot of stuff I need to learn, but I am willing to learn. Coach has always been in my corner to help me improve and help me get better. He is the one encouraging me to want those moments, to want to take those shots, and be a leader for our team. I think I am headed in the right direction. The only thing is to continue to stay in the gym and continue to want to work hard. I think everything else will fall into place.