Mark Montieth headshot

Hard to Find Drama With Pacers

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

December 31, 2013 | 9:05 p.m.

The idea, of course, is to go into the Pacers' locker room after games and find a fresh story angle, something to write about that hasn't already been said a few hundred times, but let's face it: it's getting to be like Groundhogs Day in there.

Different game, same story. Players take turns stepping into lead roles, but every game brings yet another version of their balance, depth and, especially, their defense. Every home game – with one exception this season – sends coach Frank Vogel into the postgame interview room with the same opening line: “Really good win for our guys …”

And then he goes on to hand out the appropriate verbal bouquets for the latest victory, such as Tuesday's over Cleveland, when a fourth-quarter bum rush resulted in a 91-76 victory before another sellout audience at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

It's monotonous, but hardly boring, unless you're the one trying to find a new storyline. The best stories have some sort of conflict, but conflict is becoming increasingly difficult to find around these guys. You've never met a more pleasant, mature and cohesive bunch of fellas. For all we know, they hopped on their team plane for Toronto, where they'll play on Wednesday, and played Bridge, drank tea and enjoyed some finger sandwiches.

How will they celebrate New Year's Eve?

“Huge bash,” Vogel said before the game. “Huge. We spent $20,000 on liquor ... girls … it's going to be wild.” Only a coach in charge of a group such as this would dare make such a joke, which prompted immediate laughter from the assembled media. Actually, Vogel will have a video chat with his family from his hotel room. David West said he would call his family. Roy Hibbert said he would sleep. It's not at all difficult to believe them.

Forget dirt, these guys barely know drama.

The most striking thing in Tuesday's victory was George Hill's defense on Kyrie Irving. It was nothing new, really, but it has been a relatively overlooked topic. Irving finished with just 10 points and five assists, well below his norms of 22.6 and 6.1. He suffered a knee injury that required treatment in the locker room, but returned to the game. He described it as a “painful experience” and will have an MRI on Wednesday.

Still, Hill has a knack for containing premier point guards. He held Irving to 15 points on 6-of-17 shooting in the earlier meeting with the Cavs. Brooklyn's Deron Williams has averaged 13.3 points in three games against the Pacers this season. The Clippers' Chris Paul scored 17. San Antonio's Tony Parker scored 13. Memphis' Michael Conley had 11. All were well below their averages with the exception of Williams.

“I thought for George Hill it was as special a performance as we've seen all year,” Vogel said. “With his defense on Kyrie Irving (who entered the game averaging 22.6), to hold him to 10 points … he's a special point guard defender.

“It seems like every night we're playing a superstar point guard and George Hill just puts sand on the fire. He's a big reason why we're the No. 1 defensive team in the league.”

Hill doesn't rank himself among defenders of point guards, preferring to leave that to “you guys.” He does, however, know the source of whatever defensive prowess he possesses.

“Coach Pop,” he said, referring to San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, his coach for his first three NBA seasons. “Coach Pop turned me into a defender. In order to get on the floor there, you have to be solid as a team defensively but also as an individual. He challenged me every day to be the best defensive player I can possibly be.

“I'm not going to back down from anybody. He challenged me every day, and guarding guys like Manu (Ginobili) and Tony (Parker) every day in practice really helped. I give them all the credit.”

Hill is built for the task. He's listed at 6-foot-3, which might be slightly generous, but has a sleeve length of 38 inches. Those long arms go well with his quick feet and constant desire. They allow him to keep pressure on a ballhandler while playing off him a step and limiting the possibility of getting beat off the dribble. He also fights through screens, slipping over the top of the screener to stay with the ballhandler, rather than going underneath and allowing an open shot.

Time was, Ian Mahinmi's story was a source of possible conflict because of his struggles on the court. He struggled late last season and early this season, leading some to wonder if the Pacers wouldn't search for a replacement backup center. Vogel experimented by leaving him on the bench for one game, to see how a smaller lineup worked. Mahinmi has showed obvious improvement over the past five games, however, averaging 5.4 points while hitting 11-of-14 field goal attempts. That's significant compared to his season scoring average of 3 points. He's also grabbed 21 rebounds over that stretch, re-establishing himself as Hibbert's understudy.

He has no explanation for his uptick, other than his work with assistant coach Popeye Jones and encouragement from his teammates.

“It's more about a confident level,” he said. “I feel right now I'm pretty confident and also taking my time. When I catch the ball I take my time and make the right decision.

“The season is long. It goes up and down. Early in the season I'm missing shots that I usually made and wasn't being very aggressive the way I usually am. I talk to the guys, and especially Lance (Stephenson) has been talking to me a lot and believing in me and always telling me, 'I'm going to find you, I'm going to find you.' It's always good when you have teammates who pick you up.”

No conflict there.

Danny Granger remains a “story” as he works his way back from knee surgery. He's only played five games so far, and only two of them have been good ones, but Tuesday's was his best. He scored 12 points, hitting all six foul shots, and looked quicker and more fluid than any of the previous games.

He wasn't available following Tuesday's game, but said after Monday's practice that he expects to need about 20 games to get back to something resembling his normal self – whatever normal is after sitting out all but five games last season.

“I talked to David West, he said after he tore his ACL, although he was healthy, it takes about two years to get back to where you were,” Granger said. “Unfortunately, it's kind of that way with an injury like I had. There's a huge psychological thing about that. It takes a lot of plays, a lot of minutes to get full confidence in it. Will it be in my head for probably this whole year? Yeah, but you play through it.”

Granger feels no pain, however, and faces little pressure. The Pacers have won without him, and he's a bonus. He's only needed to provide the kind of relief he did on Tuesday, not score more than 20 points each night as once was the case.

The Pacers are 25-5 heading into the new year. That puts them on pace to win between 68 and 69 games. Their record for the calendar year 2013 was 56-24, surpassed only by the 1969 record of 56-20 by the ABA Pacers. It might or might not be relevant that the '69 record led to the franchise's first championship in 1970.

That's the story for now. It's a rare one, indeed.

Two for Tuesday presented by IMCU »
Buy one ticket, get one free for Tuesday home games