Break-ing News: Pacers Can Improve If…

The All-Star break isn't the halfway point of the NBA season, but always feels like it. For the Pacers, though, this one feels more like the gap between training camp and the start of the regular season.

They've had Victor Oladipo for seven games and have gone with the planned starting lineup in two. That amounts to an exhibition season of sorts, but unfortunately for them one that counts in the standings. They went 2-5 in the games after Oladipo returned on Jan. 29 and 1-1 in the games that the supposed starters actually started.

Now they'll practically begin anew when the season resumes on Feb. 21 in New York. Oladipo likely will have approval to play whatever minutes Nate McMillan wants him to play from that point on and they can begin finding out just what kind of team they have over the final 27 games of the regular season before the playoffs begin.

That six-game losing streak before Wednesday's face-saving victory over Milwaukee dampened what had been an impressive season given all the injuries. Now, at 32-23, they are on pace to win 48 games for the third consecutive season. While that would give the impression of a franchise stuck in neutral, it wouldn't be a truly accurate portrayal of a team with six new players (including Oladipo) in its current nine-man rotation and has sometimes played two other newcomers: rookie Goga Bitadze, who occasionally gets rotation minutes, and free agent JaKarr Sampson, who has started 10 games.

Still, it would feel like a letdown for a team that had been on pace to win about 54 games most of the season and was 31-17 after Oladipo's heroic return against Chicago. The good news for the Pacers, though, is that they, more than any team in the Eastern Conference, appear to have the potential for late-season improvement if they remain healthy. They finally have their starting lineup intact and are beginning to get acquainted with one another.

Even that six-game losing streak offered reasons to be encouraged. The fact they were in every game even with Oladipo struggling to find his rhythm and Malcolm Brogdon feeling worn out could be taken as a positive indicator despite the late-game meltdowns. Most losing streaks feature a blowout or two, but the Pacers were in every game until the final few minutes, sometimes the final few seconds.

"We've shown that we can play with these guys," McMillan said following the victory over the Bucks. "It's a matter of us learning to play with each other and finishing games."

Time will tell. It always does. And some challenging times are ahead.

The Pacers' schedule to this point is ranked 22nd in degree of difficulty, so that will even out. In other words, it will become more difficult. Of their remaining 27 games, 15 are on the road. And eight of those 15 are against teams that have better records than they have coming out of the break. They are 3 1/2 games back of fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the lowest a team can go to get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Miami, which currently claims that spot, is finished with its Western swings and has 16 of its remaining 28 games at home.

So, from here on out the Pacers' focus will be on improving and hitting the playoffs with momentum. Some things will have to happen along the way, though. Domantas Sabonis and T.J. Warren, the Pacers' two leading scorers, are virtual constants, the team's most consistent players. It's the other three starters who bring the variables and are most likely to be the X factors who determine the fate of the season. Namely:

Victor Oladipo

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Oladipo has to be healthy. And integrated.

He looked physically fit in his games before the break, and that was the most encouraging thing of all. He showed no fear, either. He drew six charging fouls in 175 minutes of action, which is two more than any other Pacer took over the first 55 games. That can be taken as a damning indictment of his teammates or foolish recklessness on his part, given the fact he was coming back from an injury. Still, it was noble of him to put himself in harm's way.

Adding a first-team all-defense honoree from two seasons ago can only help a porous perimeter defense that leads to all kinds of problems. He's needed to add punch to the offense as well. He hit only 33 percent of his field goal attempts in his pre-break games, including 24 percent from behind the 3-point line, but showed gradual improvement. He played his best game against Milwaukee on Wednesday by hitting 4-of-7 shots, passing out four assists and helping set an aggressive tone defensively from the opening tip.

His offensive approach gradually evolved as he went along. He was eager to make a splash at first, an instinct only enhanced by his overtime-forcing 3-pointer against the Bulls in his first game. He shot too frequently, particularly against Dallas when he put up 17 shots in 23 minutes (and hit only four). He'll have plenty of opportunities to score as he shaves off the rest of his rust, but the team will be better if he blends with the others rather than trying to make them bend to his will.

The stats on this are clear. The Pacers won nearly 90 percent of their games when he took 15 shots or fewer the past two seasons. That's not to say he should never take more than 15 or shouldn't have some 30-point nights, but they have been awfully difficult to beat when he plays within the offense.

That's a challenge for someone who rises to the spotlight and embraces stardom. Those are essential qualities for a great player, but greatness comes in forms other than point total.

Malcolm Brogdon

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Brogdon has to be healthy. And accurate.

Amid all the commotion surrounding Oladipo's return, it was easy to forget Brogdon's ongoing health issues and struggles to return to form.

He got off to a splendid start, averaging 20.7 points on 47 percent shooting and 8.5 assists over the first 11 games while establishing himself as a leader. People were beginning to talk about him as an All-Star candidate, but his play slipped after he suffered a lower back strain early in the game at Houston, and then slipped further after a concussion and strep throat caused him to miss more games. In the 13 games prior to Wednesday, he averaged 14.3 points on 42 percent shooting and 6.8 assists.

His performance against the Bucks, when he tied his career high with 13 assists and scored 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, reminded everyone of the player who had almost routinely closed out victories with clutch plays early in the season.

Brogdon's attendance record is a legitimate concern, though. He has missed 14 of 55 games this season. He missed 18 last season. He missed 34 two seasons ago. The Pacers likely will need him in uniform and at his best to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

His shooting is an issue as well. He joined the elite 50/40/90 club last season with Milwaukee, hitting better than 50 percent of his shots from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the foul line. But he's in the 44/32/91 club so far this season. Playing point guard has taken a toll on his shooting accuracy, sapping his energy and forcing him to shoot off the dribble more often. Playing with injuries hasn't helped, either.

He's got a far more demanding job than the one he had with the Bucks, but a far more crucial one. He's essentially a rookie at his new position and still adjusting.

Myles Turner

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Turner has to block out the noise. And some shots, too.

Four years ago, Myles Turner would not have believed where his career is today. It's easy to forget now, but he was the Next Big Thing as a rookie, a lottery pick who showed early promise and then showed potential stardom.

He opened a Western Conference road trip in January of 2016 with 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting, followed with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting at Denver, followed with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting at Phoenix and then scored 31 points in less than 28 minutes at Golden State on 12-of-17 shooting. After ending the trip with an 11-point game at Sacramento, he scored 16 against the Clippers in the first game back home, hitting 7-of-11 shots.

Oh, did we mention he came off the bench for all those games? By then the public clamor for him to start had become impossible to ignore and coach Frank Vogel finally made the move on Jan. 28 against Atlanta. Turner responded with 20 points, hitting 9-of-17 shots.

He was primarily a dunker and midrange threat then, and a good one. But now he's morphed into a 3-point shooter and shot-blocker. He's already taken more 3-pointers than in any of his first three seasons and only 11 fewer than all of last season. He's shooting less often as well, averaging fewer shot attempts (9.3) than in any season since he as a rookie.

The high-pick-and-roll offense often leaves him waiting in the wings. Sometimes he becomes so invisible that McMillan has to call a play just to get him a shot. Shooting less often has him shooting less accurately. His 3-point percentage led the team in December but is now at .344, lowest since his rookie season.

He has accepted his diminished offensive role gracefully, a crucial element to the team's potential success. Fans seem to complain about him more than anyone on the roster, sometimes forgetting about the team-first transition he has made. He shut down his Twitter account for a while when the negativity became more than he wanted to hear.

Scoring aside, though, Turner isn't blocking shots or rebounding as well as last season. He averaged a league-leading 2.7 blocks a year ago, but 1.9 so far this season. His shot-blocking is especially vital on this team, given the frequency with which opposing players get to the rim, and is noticeably missed when he's not in the game. His rebounding average also has slipped, from 7.2 to 6.2, despite playing slightly longer than last season. The Pacers have been one of the NBA's worst rebounding teams since early December and need every single one they can get.

Turner showed more life in the seven games before the break after missing two with an illness, shooting 48 percent from the field and 39 percent from behind the 3-point line. He blocked five shots against New Orleans and had his sixth double-figure rebounding game of the season against Milwaukee. He could be a prime beneficiary of Oladipo's return because of Oladipo's ability to penetrate and create shooting opportunities for teammates. He averaged 11.5 field goal attempts in the two games Oladipo started, which might or might not mean something, and seemed more engaged.

Regardless, it will be important for the Pacers to keep Turner involved in the offense and equally important for Turner to keep himself involved. He admittedly fades into the offensive mist too willingly at times, but now and then he serves up reminders of the talent that had everyone so encouraged four years ago.

He seems to flex it most consistently in season-openers, when outlooks are fresh and energy is running high. He opened his second season with a 30-point, 16-rebound game against Dallas. The following year he had 21 points and 14 rebounds against Brooklyn. After an eight-point, eight-rebound game in a mere 20-minute appearance in the blowout victory over Memphis last season, he had 25 points and nine rebounds in this season's opener against Detroit.

The Pacers will be starting over in a sense after the All-Star break. The starters should be healthy and rested and Oladipo's restrictions lifted. Turner won't have consistent scoring opportunities with this group, but recapturing the mojo of his earlier seasons would go a long way toward helping them breaking the bonds of another first-round exit.

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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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