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A Great Way to Start the Year

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

October 29, 2013

When last seen in a real game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers had defeated Miami and forced a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals. So, Tuesday's 97-87 win over Orlando before another sellout crowd in the season-opener didn't exactly trump that.

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It did raise the bar, however. With preseason expectations the highest they've been since October of 2004, the Pacers had a lot to live up to. And they did, showing off enough new features on their new model to make it easy to ignore the defects.

“For the most part it was a great way to start the year,” said David West, the most objective commentator in the locker room.

“Most part,” indeed. Their team defense rose to the occasion, Paul George showed new-contract-be-damned aggressiveness, Lance Stephenson showed another level of confidence and Orlando Johnson showed new skills. They have 81 games left to work on their tendency to grow soft with leads, reduce turnovers and get the new guys up to speed on their defensive approach.

The theme of the media questioning lately has been that every game counts, and that the Pacers can't falter against the lesser teams if they are to get the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference that brings homecourt advantage in the playoffs. That's true enough. But it's also true that Pacer teams have a tradition of turning slow starts into successful seasons. Larry Brown's first team as coach started 1-6 and took New York to seven games in the conference finals. Larry Bird's first team started 2-5 and took Chicago to seven games in the conference finals. Last season's team started 11-11 and took Miami to seven games in the conference finals.

All of those Game 7s were on the road, however, so a fast start that brings homecourt advantage would be welcome. Lance Stephenson has stated a goal of starting 10-0, and the Pacers exemplified that kind of urgency by jumping to a 12-0 lead over the Magic. They gave it all back, but re-asserted their will in the second half.

Collectively, they held Orlando to 39 percent shooting and allowed just 10 foul shots (while getting 32 attempts of their own). They also blocked 18 shots, a franchise record for a home game and one short of the overall record, and controlled the boards adequately.

Paul George had promised in the preseason that he would be more aggressive about creating shots and attacking the basket and less aggressive about attacking the three-point line. He backed that up from the start, scoring the game's first points on a pull-up mid-range jumper and making an aggressive move to the basket for their third basket. He converted a three-point play off another assertive move later in the period, making clear his updated approach.

Team president Larry Bird had taken a jab at him for shooting too many three-pointers at the press conference in July to announce his new max contract. George obviously was listening. He attempted six three-pointers, a couple of which were necessary to beat the shot clock.

“Larry said it best when I signed my contract,” George said. “I probably like the three-point line too much. That's what I can improve on, getting to the rack and trying to get to the free throw line.”

George attempted seven foul shots on Tuesday. Not an astounding number, but double the attempts he averaged last season.

“He's been extremely aggressive,” Vogel said. “That's something we preach. Smash-mouth basketball is not just about physicality with our big guys, but also being relentless with our driving game from the perimeter. He's probably our best at that.”

Orlando Johnson also showed off a new game. The only player among the reserves to finish with a positive plus-minus rating (+11) other than C.W. Watson (+2), he scored nine points, all in the second half. He appeared more fluid, moving freely within the offense and shooting off the dribble. Vogel had said on Monday he was uncertain how the playing rotation would break down at shooting guard and small forward, and Johnson's place in it seemed questionable. But lo and behold he was the first player off the bench, replacing Stephenson midway through the first quarter. He did nothing to earn a demotion.

“A lot of it is getting comfortable with the system,” Johnson said. “I didn't feel comfortable taking those shots last year. I've put time in on my game. Being more comfortable is the reason people are starting to see my whole game.”

Stephenson, meanwhile, continued the ascension that was so crucial to the Pacers' success last season. He finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and – drum roll, please – just one turnover while playing 35 ½ minutes, more than all Pacers except George. He actually prefers playing with the second unit over starting, but as long as Danny Granger is out he'll have the best of both worlds. He'll start, and play with the reserves as well.

Asked afterward which role he's most comfortable with, he laughed and paused.

“With the first unit if I make a play or score, that's a bonus,” he said. “With the second unit, that's my time and I feel I need to make something happen.”

That he did, attacking the basket with the same reckless abandon as last season, but showing more poise in doing so. He also hit two-of-three three-pointers after hitting just 2-of-12 in preseason.

The potential obstacle of the Pacers' balance and expected depth is that there won't be enough shots to go around. Roy Hibbert is the one who will suffer most, but appears resigned to the reality. He got off six shots against the Magic, which coincidentally or not matched the number of his offensive rebounds. If he continues to grab 16 rebounds (15 in the first half) and block seven shots as he did on Tuesday, he'll earn his keep without ever shooting.

“I'm not the type to complain about shots,” he said. “I've averaged six or seven shots per game throughout my career here. Would I like more? Yes. But I understand my place and my role. So I have to (get shots) on the offensive boards.”

The worst thing about the game for the Pacers was the defensive lapse of their second unit. Highly touted in the off-season, they gave up the leader the starters had earned in no time, allowing Orlando 26 points in the second period.

West wasn't pleased.

“They have to embrace our approach defensively and how aggressive we try to be,” he said. “Understand that's our strength and that's what we depend on, night in and night out.”

Chris Copeland, at least, is off the hook. A highly-touted acquisition who became a key player for the Knicks last season, he didn't get off the bench other than to make room for teammates to sit during timeouts. Unable to defend most small forwards, he'll have to play behind West and Scola at power forward for now, a role that kept Miles Plumlee on the bench most of last season.

Vogel called him “a heckuva weapon” because of his shooting ability, but it apparently will take an injury or Scola getting extensive minutes at center for Copeland to play much. He showed no hints of distress in the locker room, but might want to start honing his stiff upper lip. Every successful team includes frustrated bench-warmers, who have no choice but to go with the happy flow.

Perhaps the greatest collective weakness for the Pacers is their lack of killer instinct. They had major lapses last season even in the playoffs, and grew sloppy with their comfort zones on Tuesday. Their 12-0 lead had turned into a deficit five minutes into the second period, and they were digging out of a four-point hole to start the second half. It's nothing new in basketball or the real world, relaxing too much when things are going well, but it could be the factor that keeps the Pacers from gaining the No.1 seed.

“We can't coast,” West said. “We can't feel we've accomplished anything.”

Words to live by.

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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