by Conrad Brunner
October 20, 2001
INDIANAPOLIS, October 20, 2001 - After watching her son's team play a recent preseason game, Mary Thomas had a request.
''She said, 'Baby, you've got to get me around some more younger people. I just can't be around old people all the time. They act like they're waiting to die,' '' said Isiah Thomas, the Pacers' head coach.
In his mother's words, Thomas found a metaphor that applies to his star player. Though Reggie Miller is, at 36, the oldest player on the roster, he isn't acting his age. And Thomas believes that's because of the infusion of youth on the roster.
''I think in a lot of ways, it's made him younger and it's also been refreshing to him to be around younger players who are trying to do things the right way, who really are trying to win in this league,'' Thomas said. ''I think by us having brought in a lot of young players, he's seen that these young players are players he can win with through their development last year and their commitment to becoming better, and I think it's made him younger.
''I don't see a 35, 36-year-old guy out there playing basketball. I see Reggie Miller like he was 25, 26 years old. And he's really, really good.''
Through five games, Miller is tied for the team lead in minutes (27.4) and is averaging 12.0 points on .488 shooting overall, .400 from the 3-point line (eight of 20). Though he has spoken of taking on a reduced role this season, that doesn't seem to be happening.
So, does he really feel younger?
''I don't know about that,'' Miller said with a smile, ''but it's fun to be around the young guys because they bring a different perspective. It's a different generation game and our young guys play hard each and every moment, and that's good.''
Now, Thomas must find a comparable solution for his mom.
''I've got to get her back to the jazz bars,'' he said. ''My mom, she isn't one of those types of ladies who wants to lay it up and take it easy. She wants to be around the action all the time.''
THOMAS STILL CURIOUS ABOUT SUNDOV, BREZEC
With the questions at four of the five positions either resolved or at least explained, Thomas wants to use the final segment of the preseason to get a clearer picture of his depth on the front line.
Jermaine O'Neal, Jeff Foster, Austin Croshere and Carlos Rogers all have had positive preseasons. What remains to be seen is if either, or both of the young European centers, Bruno Sundov and Primoz Brezec, can prove ready to assume a regular role.
''I'd like to give Brezec and Sundov some extended minutes and have them play alongside O'Neal or Foster just to see how they hold their own against some of the top players in the league,'' Thomas said. ''However, you try to do that and you can get a false sense because it is exhibition. . . . I'll try to spot them minutes and see if I can get them into the games where it's kind of intense to see how they play with those two.''
Sundov, 21, has been in the NBA for three seasons, including one with the Pacers, but has appeared in just 28 games. Still, he is farther along then Brezec, 22, a first-round pick two years ago who has played professionally only in Slovenia.
Both played against Minnesota on Friday night, Brezec producing four points and three rebounds in 12 minutes, Sundov one point and three rebounds in seven minutes.
''I'm feeling pretty good, feeling pretty comfortable, feeling much different than last year,'' Sundov said. ''When I get into the game, it's a different story. Now, I'm ready to play and I'm ready to help this team. What I need to work on is defense, getting rebounds and blocking shots. Those things will keep me in the game.''
With Al Harrington taking a firm grip at small forward and Jalen Rose looking comfortable at the point before being sidelined by knee tendinitis, then strep throat, Thomas has been pleased with his team's preseason development.
''The other four positions out on the floor, I like what we have,'' he said. ''I like the versatility we have and I like what everyone has shown in terms of being able to play a lot of different spots out on the floor.''
NEW RULES HAVE LIMITED IMPACT - SO FAR
The only obvious impact of the new defensive rules has been the presence of defensive three-second violations, which result in immediate technical fouls. Under the old illegal-defense system, defensive teams received a warning before being hit with a technical foul on the second violation.
In the first five preseason games, there were a total of 15 defensive three-second technicals, just six against the Pacers. Though zone defenses are no longer outlawed, they haven't been widely implemented. Minnesota showed the most zone thus far.
''Their zone was a factor,'' said Thomas. ''I didn't want to change combinations and put in a zone team. I stuck with some guys who probably weren't equipped to play against a zone, but they needed some minutes.''
The Pacers have revealed no plans to incorporate the zone as a substantial part of their defensive scheme.
''I haven't seen a lot of zones during the exhibition season, which leads me to believe you'll see a lot of it during the regular season,'' Thomas said. ''You just have to wait and see how it plays out. The good players and the good coaches will find a way to beat any rule. You just try to put your players in a position where they can take advantage of it.''
O'NEAL STILL WORKING ON FREE THROW FORM
Because he anticipates going to the free throw line a lot, Jermaine O'Neal wants to be fully prepared to take advantage of the opportunities. After shooting .601 from the line last season, he has worked with Pacers scout and shot doctor York Larese on altering his form.
The results thus far have been mixed. O'Neal is shooting .564 from the line (22 of 39) through four games. Still, he feels confident the results are coming.
''I'm trying a whole new technique, and it's tough to learn a new style at this level, but it's working,'' he said. ''Free throws are key. You need those easy baskets, and they're free. Nobody's contesting you, nobody's standing in front of you, so you need to make those count.''
TINSLEY'S PROGRESS PLEASES THOMAS
Though rookie point guard Jamaal Tinsley has struggled, defensively, in his two starts, he also has shown his ability to relentlessly push the tempo, as well as to complete passes with uncanny timing.
''I think he's coming along about like we expected. Nah, I'm lying. It's been a lot faster than we expected,'' Thomas said. ''He's wise beyond his years out on the floor. He sees a lot of things out there. I'm looking and see a man open and before I can get it out of my mouth, the ball is there for the man. He sees it all, not only offensively, but he's a better defender than I thought, also. He's a good basketball player.''
Tinsley frequently was caught behind screens against Minnesota, and veteran Terrell Brandon torched him for 19 points in the first quarter on his way to 27 for the night.
''I told Terrell, he did to Jamaal what I did to him when he first came into the league,'' said Thomas. ''It's part of growing up in the league, but Jamaal will bounce back from this.''
Tinsley is averaging 17.0 minutes, 3.8 points, 4.4 assists and 2.8 turnovers.
''He has speed and quickness and great dribble moves,'' Thomas said. ''I'm not talking about the wild, fancy stuff. It's the old classic moves we were taught. He's got all that stuff. It ain't the stuff that makes you go ''oooh,'' but it gets you a layup.''