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Backing up what they say; Pacers enter season with big aspirations

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Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel watches the action during a March 29 game against the Washington Wizards in Indianapolis. The Pacers open the 2012-13 season Wednesday at Toronto.
Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel watches the action during a March 29 game against the Washington Wizards in Indianapolis. The Pacers open the 2012-13 season Wednesday at Toronto. PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBERSON


From his first day on the job, Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel has talked about achieving at a high level.

Not down the road, but now.

Fortunately for the Pacers, Vogel has backed the words with results.

Technically in his third season, he’s been the head coach for the rough equivalent of just one. Yet the Pacers have been to the playoffs twice on his brief watch.

If you go

Upcoming Indiana Pacers games

Season-opener: 7 p.m. Wednesday, at Toronto

Second game: 7 p.m. Friday, at Charlotte

Home-opener: 7 p.m. Saturday, vs. Sacramento

They were the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference last season, had the fifth-best record in the NBA and gave the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat a major scare before succumbing in the East semifinals.

Entering what will be his first full season as head coach, Vogel, not surprisingly, expects more. Much more.

He’s not afraid to say so.

“We finished the season last year feeling like we were good enough to win the championship. We’re a team that sets our sights high,” said Vogel, whose team tips off the regular season Wednesday night at Toronto. “We shoot for the moon, and then we work our butts off to try to get to those goals.”

The Pacers’ goal, not surprisingly, is to contend for the championship. With all five starters back, complemented by a fortified bench, they are confident of doing just that.

Having signed center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill to offseason extensions, solidifying a starting lineup of Danny Granger, David West and Paul George, team architects Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard made strengthening the reserve unit a priority. Vogel is confident the front office achieved its objective with the acquisitions of point guard D.J. Augustin, swingman Gerald Green and center Ian Mahinmi.

Those players join a bench that is expected to prominently feature power foward Tyler Hansbrough, point guard/shooting guard Lance Stephenson and rookie center Miles Plumlee, the Pacers’ first-round draft pick.

“Last year’s bench struggled to score and struggled to move the ball and play together,” Vogel said. “(Mahimi) understands the value of the pass. D.J. Augustine is a big-time set-up point guard. He just has instincts to share the basketball and set teammates up that you can’t really teach. You’ve got shooting with Gerald Green and the ability to run offense through him in the low post, as well as the ability to finish in the open court.

“That unit’s going to have to find their way and establish chemistry, but there’s a lot of positive things with the ability to shoot the basketball and the ability to share it.”

Players share the opinion that the bench upgrade clears the path to the next playoff step.

“We took a huge step in the direction,” George said. “We’ve still got to grow chemistry with the new guys, but I think that was the biggest step we needed.”

Proof, however, will be in the results. Vogel, who was interim coach for the last half of the 2010-11 season before being promoted for last year’s lockout-shortened season, expects nothing less than a run at the East title. And possibly more.

Indiana, after all, led Miami 2-1 in last year’s semifinals and had an eight-point halftime lead in Game 4 before Heat stars LeBron James and Dwayne Wade essentially took over the series.

Vogel is confident of a different outcome if the playoff-tested Pacers are in a similar position this time.

He’s not afraid to say so.

“We pushed (the Heat). We pushed them to greatness. They needed LeBron and Wade to play at a level together that they hadn’t reached yet,” Vogel said. “We challenged them. They rose to the challenge at the time, and they were able to take the series. But for us, it was a growth step, a chance to get in and show that we can play with those guys.

“We weren’t ready to beat them last year, but hopefully we’re ready this year.”

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