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Fran Blinebury

The Pacers expect scorers such as Danny Granger (left) and Mike Dunleavy to play defense next season.
Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Ramping up defense's improvement is Pacers' top priority

By Fran Blinebury, for
Posted Sep 9 2009 9:45AM

Located just down the road from the home of the Indianapolis 500, you'd figure the Pacers would know all about keeping their foot down on the gas pedal.

Now they're working on applying the brakes.

Reversing Fortunes's experts review the teams that didn't make the Playoffs last season and what they'll need to do to avoid the Lottery next season.
Date Team
Aug. 23 New Jersey Nets
Aug. 24 Toronto Raptors
Aug. 25 Oklahoma City Thunder
Aug. 26 Phoenix Suns
Aug. 27 Charlotte Bobcats
Aug. 28 Minnesota Timberwolves
Aug. 31 Memphis Grizzlies
Sept. 1 Washington Wizards
Sept. 2 Sacramento Kings
Sept. 3 Golden State Warriors
Sept. 4 New York Knicks
Sept. 7 L.A. Clippers
Sept. 8 Indiana Pacers
Sept. 9 Milwaukee Bucks

Since the end of last season, the Pacers have shifted the focus from their wide open, run-the-floor, shoot-the-3 offense to laying down some defense. The team's signings of free agents Dahntay Jones, Earl Watson and Solomon Jones over the summer have underlined the emphasis on stopping the other team.

"With (coach) Jim O'Brien and me, you're always gonna have a team that likes to shoot 3s and run with the ball," team president Larry Bird told "But for all of the good things that we were able to do last year offensively, we knew that we aren't going to move back up into being a playoff team and a contender until we get back to playing defense."

Of the five highest-scoring teams in the NBA last season, only the champion L.A. Lakers reached the postseason. While the Pacers were able to score at a 105.8 points a game clip, they ranked 26th in team defense and 15th in field goal defense.

"Nothing is going to change about the way we push the ball and get after it on offense," O'Brien said. "We have developed a confidence in what we can do and our guys feel that they're never out of any game. They always have the capability to come back.

"At the same time, we knew that with that style we're never going to be holding the other team down around 85 a game. But we have to develop mindset where everybody is fully committed at the same time to playing defense."

After going to the Western Conference Finals with the Denver Nuggets last season, the Pacers are counting on Jones to bring a sense of meanness to their defense. Watson, who'll be valuable as a backup point guard, has always had a nose for defense. And Jones has the size and length to be an effective shotblocker.

Even leading scorer Danny Granger, the fifth-highest point producer in the league last season (25.8 ppg), will be expected to inject at least a dose of defense into his game.

The optimism that abounds in the Indiana locker room comes from the expected return -- possibility sooner than originally thought -- of Mike Dunleavy to the lineup. Following knee and hip surgery, Dunleavy missed 64 games last season and it was at first thought that he wouldn't get back onto the court until after Jan. 1. But Dunleavy's rehabilitation is going ahead of schedule and O'Brien even allows himself to hope that his forward could be ready to take part in training camp and play on opening night.

Then there's power forward Tyler Hansbrough.

He was a four-time unanimous pick to the All-ACC First Team, finished second in the national player of the year voting and led North Carolina to the NCAA championship and still brings a boatload of skepticism into the NBA from some talent scouts.

"Let experts be experts and say what they've got to say," Bird said. "I think Tyler's got the talent and the skill to compete and deliver every night in the NBA. He spent his whole college career going against the best competition at North Carolina, so I don't see why he'd start to back down now."

"We never had doubts," O'Brien said. "If 12 other teams ahead of us in the draft were doing to balk on Hansbrough, we had no doubts. You start with passion, intensity and talent and, well, that's a good place to start."

The Pacers lost guards Jarrett Jack and Marquis Daniels to free agency, but signed Watson to be their backup point guard and are counting on another solid season from T.J. Ford.

"For a guy who I think of as a young player, T.J. has played a good number of games and had a lot of success in his career," O'Brien said. "We don't have as great a concern about previous injuries to his neck as others have had in the past. I'm expecting him to be ready all year. But we also went and got a tough-minded guy like Earl Watson and feel that Travis Diener is also making a lot of progress."

O'Brien enters the season in the final year of his contract without talk of an extension, but he and Bird say they won't be distracted or bothered by that.

"Jim and I have the same goals, the same philosophies and the same kind of hopes for this season and the future," Bird said. "We're gonna add some defense to a team that already played an exciting offensive style. We were close last year, right in the playoff race to the last week or two. Now we're looking to get back."

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