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Ball Movement, Assist Totals Improving

It's becoming a mantra, not only from coach Nate McMillan but from the players and from the broadcasters describing the action: great ball movement.

The Pacers are getting more and more of it as the season has progressed. It's the primary reason they've generally exceeded expectations this season and won seven of their previous eight games, and it's made them more enjoyable to watch than any team since the one that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2014. With their only player who's appeared in an All-Star Game, Victor Oladipo, sidelined all season they've had to rely on balance to score. Ball movement tends to bring about balance. Vice-versa, too.

The Pacers don't score a lot in transition — they rank 25th in pace. They don't get to the foul line often — they rank last in free throw attempts. They don't score much from behind the 3-point line, although that's trending upward — they rank 29th in 3-point attempts.

Ball movement in the halfcourt offense, then, is a necessity. They rank seventh in the NBA in assists per game at 25.5. That's far superior to recent seasons but well short of McMillan's goal of 30. They've only reached 30 six times all season, but three of those have come in the five previous games.

They've won all six games in which they reached 30 assists, and also won all three games in which they had 28 or 29. They even deserve some credit for having 27 assists in Sunday's loss at Milwaukee when they hit just 37 percent of their field goal attempts. Mere 40 percent shooting could have reached their target.

Ball movement begins in the backcourt, and the Pacers guards have been able to get into the foul lane often enough to draw defenders and kick the ball out to open teammates on the perimeter — even if they require a screen from Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner to do so. Sabonis further contributes to the lubrication of the offense by being one of the better passing big men in the league. Having five capable shooters in the game at nearly all times makes a difference, too. There's always someone deserving of a pass when he's open.

"We have guys who can get in the paint at any given moment and make plays for each other," T.J. Warren says.

The result is six players with scoring averages in double figures and another, Doug McDermott, averaging 9.6. All five starters have scored at least 25 points in a game this season. Aaron Holiday scored 24 as a replacement starter in one of the victories at Brooklyn and his brother, Justin, scored 20 as an emergency starter in the same game.

The ball movement has rarely been displayed better than in Monday's victory over Toronto. A few examples:

• Doug McDermott opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer that restored the Pacers' lead. That possession began when T.J. McConnell drove the lane, kicked out a pass to Edmond Sumner in the right corner. Sumner passed to Sabonis near the free throw line and Sabonis returned the ball to Sumner, who drove to his left off Sabonis' screen and found McDermott wide open in the left corner in front of Toronto's bench.

• In overtime, Sabonis drew an extra defender while posting on the left block, so he kicked a pass back to Aaron Holiday behind the 3-point line. Holiday passed up a shot to pass to Jeremy Lamb behind the line on the right wing, and Lamb passed up a shot to find Turner in the right corner for a 3-pointer that gave the Pacers a 110-109 lead.

• Holiday later hit a 3-pointer from the left wing to open a 116-113 lead. That came off a feed from Lamb, who drove into the lane off Sabonis' screen.

Ball movement often leads to more 3-point shots. McMillan wants 30 of those, too. His team has attempted that many or more just 12 times this season, but they've done so in four of their previous five games.

That has more to do with "taking what the defense gives you" than anything, as recent opponents have been playing zone defense to deal with the Pacers' pick-and-roll action. The Clippers played some zone in their 110-99 victory over the Pacers on Dec. 9. The Pacers hit just 35 percent of their shots, although McMillan doesn't attribute that to the zone. Charlotte and Toronto also played significant amount of zone defense in recent games.

A zone defense should cater to Warren's strengths as a player who can find the seams of a defense and score off the dribble, and often off-balance. He converted a hanging layup after taking a pass on the baseline against the Raptors' zone in the fourth quarter for two of his 24 points. Aaron Holiday also hit a 3-pointer off Turner's screen and assisted Warren's 3-pointer from the left corner against zone defenses.

Miami, Friday's opponent, also has taken to playing it some contrary to coach Eric Spoelstra's defensive philosophy until a couple of years ago.

"Teams use it to disrupt," McMillan says. "The league has gone to pick-and-roll, and teams tend to try to defend the pick-and-roll by going zone and covering that action. We're getting good looks and we're knocking down shots against zones."

McMillan is quick to point out, however, that zones tend to morph into a man-to-man defense fairly quickly. Defenders by rule can't stand in the lane for more than three seconds and they often match up to a man after a screen has been set.

Although the Pacers have been strictly a man-to-man defense under assistant coach Dan Burke's direction, McMillan acknowledged considering a zone on occasion.

"We have talked about it," he said. "You can use it to disrupt without becoming a 'zone team.'"

No Return Date for Oladipo

McMillan said no return date has been established for Oladipo, despite an unattributed ESPN report on Wednesday that he plans to return in late January or early February.

"We haven't come up with a date," McMillan said. "I saw that report. We haven't come up with a timeline for his return."

McMillan also said Malcolm Brogdon, who missed Monday's game with a sore left hamstring, will be a gametime decision in Miami.

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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