Time to Translate Good Vibes to Performance
Sure, it's one of 82 and all that, but Sunday's game at Toronto might be turn out to be the most revealing moment of the season for the Pacers.
Was all that heart-to-heart conversation in the aftermath of last Tuesday's loss at New York truly a turning point, as they claimed following Wednesday's victory over Charlotte? Or was that quick turnaround merely a one-game blip that will have been forgotten by tipoff time against the Raptors?
The Pacers could use a turning point. After rising within two games of third place in the conference upon completion of their seven-game winning streak on Feb. 6, they now are just 2 ½ games ahead of ninth, and out of the playoffs. The two teams behind them, Milwaukee and Miami, are surging, threatening to drop them lower.
With 14 games remaining in the regular season, seven at home and seven on the road, this is no time for a surge-suppressing malaise. The only indications so far have come during the shootaround portions of practice open to the media, and they've been positive. Saturday, after a louder-than-usual breakup of their closing midcourt huddle, Paul George ran after a high-bouncing ball and slammed it through the hoop with an impressive one-handed dunk. He fell to the floor and lay on his back, pretending to be injured. Finally, Glenn Robinson III ran over to help him up.
"Thank you, young buck!" George said, bouncing up.
Other players engaged in conversation as they shot around, most notably Jeff Teague, who paired off with C.J. Miles. Teague admitted following the win over Charlotte that he needs to communicate better with his teammates, and the naturally chatty Miles was the perfect partner to inspire conversation.
"We have a real good spirit right now," George said. "I guess the (pall) over us is a lot lighter. We've been locked in, more focused.
"Everybody's coming together. I think now we're on the right page."
Skepticism is warranted, given the Pacers' 35-33 record and stretches of uninspired play. Count coach Nate McMillan among those who needs more proof. He's encouraged by Wednesday's performance and what he's seen in practice the last two days, but has been around too long to be convinced of anything by one game, good or bad.
"We've seen this from our guys somewhat through the year," he said. "But the last game we talked about being connected, we talked about the communication being important; I really felt it was as strong as it's ever been.
"We've seen what we can do when we communicate on and off the floor with each other, and how strong we can be. We beat a team while on a back-to-back, and we beat Charlotte, who had handled us pretty easily a week before that. It was all because the strength of our unity was really good."
Sunday's game will be the first of the season against Toronto, which brings back memories of last season's seven-game first-round playoff series. The Pacers took that one to the limit, coming within a few questionable referees' calls in Games 5 and 7 in Toronto and a few tenths of a second on Solomon Hill's potential game-tying 3-pointer at the end of Game 7 of pulling off an upset.
Paul George was outstanding in that series, averaging 27.3 points while hitting 42 percent of his 3-point field goals, along with 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He's been outstanding over the past two weeks as well, dating back to the Pacers' victory at Atlanta, averaging 28.3 points while hitting 46 percent of his 3-pointers, along with 8.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
"I'm locked in," he said. "At this point every matchup, every game is a playoff-attitude game for us. We're nowhere in the standings to be comfortable or complacent or to feel like we've got a spot locked in. From here on out, we've got to have a playoff mindset."
The best part of George's recent play has been his rebounding. He had just four double-figure rebound games over his first 55 of the season, but has had four more in the past six. The Pacers, who have been outrebounded by an average of 2.7 per game this season, need every one he can get.
"It's been a conscious thing for me, to make sure I'm down there, helping Myles (Turner) out, helping Thad (Young) out. Just get back to rebounding. I've been good throughout my career at the small forward spot and my numbers have been down in that area, so I wanted to get back to rebounding that basketball."
Another hopeful indication from George came during a second-half timeout against the Hornets on Wednesday, when he requested McMillan change a play call. He followed up by hitting a 3-pointer on the inbound possession.
McMillan welcomes that sort of thing.
"I want that from all my guys; not just Paul, from all my guys," he said. "They're out there. They hear things and they see things and they feel things out there that they can do against an opponent, and they bring that to the bench.
"We've had that happen many times this season. That should happen. I don't think it happens enough. We want you involved so we can make adjustments. To me, you're in the moment. When you're in the moment like that, that's a good thing."
Teague also was more engaged against the Hornets. Quiet by nature, he's been even quieter than usual this season as he adjusts to new teammates and surroundings. He blamed himself for that following Wednesday's game, when he was noticeably more active. His post-practice shooting routine with Miles could be an indication he plans to stay in that mode.
McMillan also welcomes that from his point guard.
"So many things start with that position," he said. "Your defense, your offense, the preparation getting not only yourself but your team ready to go. That position is supposed to be an extension of the coaching. That's something he's not been too comfortable with, but he's starting to grow. The bottom line is, we're going to need him to grow and communicate more."
The Pacers flashed another positive sign on Saturday: Thad Young was working on his 3-point shot. He had hardly bothered with that after returning from the sprained left wrist that kept him out of eight games. He hadn't attempted a 3-pointer in his first nine games after the injury, and attempted one each in the last two games. The one against Charlotte failed to find the rim, however. His free throws (he is just 3-of-13 from the line since the injury) and mid-range shooting have suffered as well.
He had made 40 percent of his 3-pointers before his injury, so the return of that weapon to the offense would be significant.
"It's feeling better each and every day," he said. "Every time I take a shot, it still hurts a little bit. It's a matter of getting the strength back and keeping the swelling down and keeping the pain out."
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