Though trying to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference is still important to Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, making sure his team is on track – and rested – has become the bigger goal.
Vogel will rest all five starters Wednesday night as the visiting Pacers go for a sixth consecutive win over the NBA-worst Milwaukee Bucks.
Indiana (53-25) appears to be wearing down with the playoffs approaching, dropping five of six and eight of 11 after a 107-88 loss to Atlanta on Sunday.
Indiana was outplayed from the start, scoring 23 points over the first two quarters for the lowest first-half total in franchise history. The Pacers allowed the Hawks to shoot 56.2 percent, their second-highest mark surrendered this season.
"I don’t think it’s acceptable for any of us in our organization to play the way we played," said Vogel, whose team opened a franchise-best 9-0 and won 16 of its first 17. "We’re just going to get back to work to fix it, to get back on track."
All-Star center Roy Hibbert spent the final 2 1/2 quarters on the bench because Vogel thought he looked fatigued.
"He’s down on himself because he felt like he could have helped us, but coach made a decision," teammate David West said. "Coach has to make some tough decisions sometimes."
With things quickly falling apart, Vogel excused all his starters from Tuesday’s practice, and said during Wednesday’s shootaround that none of his top five had worked out and they would all sit out against Milwaukee. He says it’s a chance for Paul George, West, Hibbert, George Hill and Lance Stephenson to get some minor injuries healed, and for the bench players to get back on track by playing extended minutes.
"It is a goal of ours to get the No. 1 seed, but at this point, playing well is our top priority," Vogel said Tuesday. "Being fresh going into the playoffs is the top priority."
The Pacers, right behind Miami for first place in the East, visit the Heat on Friday.
"We can’t panic. We’ve just got to be loose about it," George said. "We’re just putting too much pressure where it doesn’t need to be brought. We just got to do what we do. We’re in a great position right now."
The Pacers have taken 10 of 12 from the Bucks, including five straight by an average of 16.2 points. Milwaukee, though, put up a fight in the last meeting before falling 101-96 on Feb. 27.
The Bucks (14-63) set the franchise mark for losses in a season with Saturday’s 102-98 defeat to Toronto.
"That’s not something you want to be associated with," forward John Henson said. "Hopefully we can look back on this and say this was the turning point in what we did in this organization. That’s all you can hope for."
Milwaukee has dropped five straight and 13 of 14.
Henson finished with 23 points – two shy of his season high – and Khris Middleton scored 20 on Saturday. Jeff Adrien added 19 and 12 rebounds for the Bucks, who outscored the Raptors 64-34 in the paint and 20-3 in transition.
"We want to win," Henson said, "(and) I think if we can play this competitive as a team every night, I think there are some better days to come."
Brandon Knight, averaging a team-leading 17.5 points, has scored a combined 53 in two meetings with the Pacers this season.