Pacers spoil Frank Vogel’s return

Less than a minute before the ball was thrown up to get the Pacers and Magic game started, Frank Vogel received several hugs from his former players.

One by one, they went down the court to greet their former coach. First it was C.J. Miles. Then, Paul George ripped off his shooting shirt and sprinted 30 feet to the Magic’s bench. Monta Ellis and Myles Turner followed.

Hug, smile, hand shake, game on.

Frank Vogel and Nate McMillan talked before the game. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

Frank Vogel and Nate McMillan talked before the game. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

That was perhaps the highlight of the first-year Orlando Magic coach’s return to where he roamed the sideline for five and a half years, and worked from 2007-2016.

Several of his Magic players said they could see how important this game was to coach, they could sense what it meant to him. Unfortunately, they laid an egg.

The Pacers entered the game giving up 108.1 points per game, but in front of a smaller Monday night crowd, the visiting Magic failed to reach 70 points for the first time since February of 2013. The Pacers led by four points at half, and by as many as as 21 in the second half in what became an 88-69 Pacers victory — their first in three games.

“It’s a disappointing performance tonight. That’s the only way to put it. I’m very disappointed in how we played tonight,” Vogel said after the loss, clearly bummed with his team’s effort and showing. They were playing for the second night in a row.

“I feel bad that we didn’t win this game for him,” former Pacer Damjan Rudež admitted postgame. He had been in a similar situation last year, playing for the first time against the team (Pacers) that gave him his first opportunity.

“We all knew it was going to be real emotional for him. I knew how I felt last year coming here after only spending one year with the Pacers. I can only imagine felt like for him after nine years of success and fantastic results. I could on his face that it wasn’t easy for him, but that’s the nature of our jobs.”

Old habits are hard to break. For Vogel, that has included breaking huddles and not saying Pacers.

“It happened once or twice before. We’re all creatures of habit. It was something trivial like, ‘1 … 2 … 3 … Pacers, instead of Magic,” Rudež explained. “There are few coaches who spend so much time with one team. He was always bleeding Blue & Gold.”

[Pacers looked forward to seeing Vogel back in Indy]

Vogel left an impact on the court, helping the team to four playoff appearances in five years. He left an impact in the community, making himself available whenever sales, marketing, or local charities had a request. The players remember him as a coach who believed in them, who helped provide motivation when necessary, and helped them to maximize their individual abilities.

Before the 2016-17 season start, he sent a text to emerging talent Myles Turner. “Go out there and kill it this season. If you ever need anything, let me know,” it read.

“Me and coach Frank obviously had some good battles together last year on the same side,” Turner (9 points, 7 rebounds) said after the win. “I have a lot of respect for him and what he does. and I feel like that respect is mutual. I’m a big fan of his.”

Paul George received a text from Vogel a few weeks ago looking forward to this night, though this battle that didn’t go as planned for Vogel’s team.

“It was great [to see him],” George said. “We talk to each other every now and then. He texted me about two or three weeks ago, just to talk bout tonight. We talk here and there, it’s just to see how everything is going.”

I couldn’t help but laugh whenever Nate McMillan, who took over for Vogel, signaled a play call. And vice-versa. They both knew what was coming. During a free throw sequence in the second half, the two could seen laughing.

In addition to Vogel and Rudež, C.J. Watson and D.J. Augustin are former Pacers guards on Vogel’s roster. At multiple times during the game, those three were on the court together. They have chemistry, are comfortable playing with one another, and know Vogel’s system.

“Same style but different personnel,” said Rudež. “His recipe has been successful for so many years and the basketball style that he is trying to promote is precise and a good system. It just takes some time for us to jell and for everyone to buy into it. With nine new guys on the team, it takes a while to develop chemistry and for everyone to find their place.”

C.J. Miles led the Pacers with 16 points, including four 3-pointers, in 23 minutes off the bench. George, who was questionable entering the game due to an ankle sprain, finished with 13 points, six rebounds, and five assists.

Vogel is the franchise’s winningest coach in NBA history, yet there was no video tribute. The Pacers don’t do that kind of thing. They didn’t for Roy Hibbert; they didn’t for David West; they didn’t for Lance Stephenson; George Hill shouldn’t expect one.

However, the maybe 10,000 or so fans on hand gave him a loud applause as the Magic were introduced before tip-off.

“I feel bad that it wasn’t a sell-out crowd,” said Rudež. “That would have made for a nicer homecoming, nicer welcome. Of course, I knew Indy was going to give him a warm welcome.”

Frank Vogel is probably glad to have this one over. The timing wasn’t ideal, the night after playing (and winning) in Oklahoma City. That will tire any team out. But then they had to come back the next day and play Indiana.

They admittedly lacked energy on the floor and were unable to help their coach capture a win he badly wanted. Let go by the Pacers, of course he’d like to come back and win, then grin all his way to Indianapolis International Airport.

Pacers Vice Chairman Jim Morris was one of many with the franchise who made their way down to the Magic coaches’ locker room to say hello.

Vogel was clearly upset with his team’s performance, but he continues to be appreciative of Indy and its fans.

“I’m very fond of my time here,” said coach Vogel. “I love the fans here. We’ve had a special relationship. I’m very, very grateful for all of the support they’ve shown me over the years. That was a very warm welcome.”

The next time the Pacers face Orlando will be back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on New Year’s Day.

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