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A Playoff Feeling in the Preseason

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

October 6, 2013, 12:40 AM

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It sounded like a playoff game, felt like a playoff game and at times even looked like a playoff game.

But the first clue that this was, indeed, just a pre-season game – with some bonus subplots – was obvious as soon as one hit the Pacers' locker room following their 82-76 loss to Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday. Normally after real games, the locker room is library-quiet after losses, and sometimes the scene of serious soul-searching. This time, the players were like giddy schoolkids ready to be let out on vacation, which, in a sense, they were. Their next stop was the airport, where they flew to The Philippines to prepare for exhibition games against Houston in Manila and Taipei, Taiwan.

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They didn't play well, except for the third quarter. They were outrebounded by 18, they shot poorly (33 percent), and they allowed 20 fastbreak points with poor transition defense. But pre-season games are never worthy of much analysis, especially the first one. A poor regular season performance can be written off as one of 82. A pre-season game is one of zero, basically.

You couldn't have sold that concept beforehand, though. Attendance was 15,273, four more than the Pacers averaged in regular season games a year ago. That group included the usual rowdy contingent of Bulls fans, who sharpened the edge of the Pacers' fans. They all were there to see the two leading contenders for the Central Division title, and two prominent players returning from knee injuries.

Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who sat out all of last season, was the centerpiece, attracting columnists from both Chicago newspapers and a handful of national NBA writers. The 2011 NBA Most Valuable Player was solid, finishing with 13 points, but had four turnovers in 20 minutes. Pacers forward Danny Granger, who played only five games last season, was less than solid with six points on 2-of-10 shooting, but his knee felt fine afterward.

Given the story lines and the turnout, it might have been the most notable pre-season game in thie history of the Pacers franchise in which the arena wasn't the attraction. Their debut at Market Square Arena, in October of 1974, drew a sellout crowd for an exhibition game against the NBA Milwaukee Bucks. Their last game at MSA, in 1999, drew another sellout for an exhibition against Utah.

All the interest in this game related to the teams and some individual players. And the players fed off that interest.

“It didn't feel like a pre-season game at all, the way both sides were going back and forth at one another,” Paul George said.

George admitted to some nerves, which at least partially explains the air-ball on his first shot attempt. Granger and Luis Scola admitted to being on edge, too. George hit 1-of-4 shots in the first half before recovering with a strong second half to finish with 14 points. Granger's only baskets were a three-pointer and a layup. Scola, making his Pacers debut following an off-season trade, was 2-of-7. George Hill was 3-of-10, Roy Hibbert 4-of-14.

The best display of nerves, though, came from rookie Solomon Hill. After earning rave reviews in training camp, he managed to botch a breakaway layup midway through the fourth quarter after picking off a steal. He could have dunked the ball. He could have laid it in. He somehow managed to do neither, something he no doubt heard about on the red-eye to Manila.

“Oh, man,” he said, smiling. “I was trying to dunk and my legs and mind weren't on the same page. It happens. It's your first breakaway dunk, you sprint so fast for the steal, and one thing leads to another.”

The Pacers found solace in their third quarter, when the starters looked like the team billed as a title contender. They put together a 14-0 run, seven from George, to open a 10-point lead, but gave back four of those points after Roy Hibbert was subbed out. For now, that will have to serve as their latest claim to contender status.

“We came out a little too antsy,” said David West, who also scored 14 points. “Maybe the crowd had something to do with it. We'll use it as an opportunity to grow and get better.

“We had good spurts. We have a lot of work to do. We understand this is a process.”

Granger understands that better than anyone. He knew going into the game his offense would arrive later than his defense, so he's hoping it shows up in The Philippines. The fact he had played 28 minutes and 47 seconds and still felt fine afterward was all he cared about, really.

“It was a good first step,” he said. “My second wind didn't kick in during the first half like it usually does, but it was good to get that under my belt.

"Twenty-eight minutes, I'm happy. I'm glad I was physically able to get through it."

For now, that serves as the end of the story.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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