Jumbled Pacers Coming Together

Even with a "new" roster, with players needing to get acquainted, Pacers coach Nate McMillan has frequently juggled his lineups in practice scrimmages. Rather than confine the starters to blue jerseys, the second unit to white jersey or the third unit to yellow jerseys, he's mixed and matched personnel.

That might have seemed a questionable tactic given the need to build chemistry, but it's turned out to be a good thing for an injury-riddled team that doesn't know from one game to the next who's going to play and who's going watch in street clothes, not to mention who's going to contribute.

McMillan does it to get a feel for different combinations, to challenge both the talent and attitude of his players and to ward off boredom.

"I think it gets a little stale when you're coming in every day in blue or white," he said.

It's impossible to define the Pacers at this early stage of the season, but they definitely aren't stale. Their 112-106 victory over Detroit at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday brought another batch of unpredictable and widespread donations to the cause: seven players in double figures, a team rebounding effort that overcame the massive deficits of their two earlier meetings with the Pistons, the best bench performance of the season and respectable chemistry given the on-the-fly nature of their season.

Detroit played without starters Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson and its best guard, Derrick Rose. But, oh yeah, the Pacers were without starting guard Victor Oladipo, starting forward Myles Turner, fill-in starting guard Jeremy Lamb, backup center Goga Bitadze, and rotation guard Edmond Sumner — a five that would make a respectable starting lineup if given time to meld.

Even without them at varying points of the season — the entire season in the case of Oladipo — the healthy portion of the roster has begun to take care of business. Since that 0-3 start the Pacers are 5-1, and they led Charlotte in the lone loss by 19 points before fading and falling in overtime amid some controversial whistles.

It's enough to make one wonder what could happen if and when the complete roster becomes available. When Oladipo is paired with Malcolm Brogdon in the backcourt. When Turner and Domantas Sabonis can play together long enough to test the limits of their partnership. When Lamb, Bitadze, and Sumner — all of whom have played respectably earlier this season as starters — are providing depth off the bench.

The Pacers are not only one of the NBA's hottest teams at the moment, they are one of the most mysterious and intriguing because of what could happen when they have their intended lineups.

"For sure, but we have to hold down the fort until those guys get back and integrate them into the lineup," T.J. McConnell said. "We have to continue to play good basketball."

McConnell knows what that is. The supposed third-string point guard led a bench effort that was mostly responsible for transforming the Pacers 15-point deficit into a 17-point third-quarter lead. He finished with a season-high 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting, but that was just the beginning. He added nine assists, five rebounds, nary a turnover, and consistent tone-setting hustle.

For example, his effort to corral a long rebound with a minute left in the third period resulted in Detroit guard Langston Galloway, referee Jenna Schroeder, and himself all tumbling en masse into the row of photographers on the baseline. Nobody was injured, and the fans were delighted.

"He's scrappy," McMillan added. "He's a ball of energy. When he comes into the game, he makes things happen. The tempo of the game changes."

Twelve of McConnell's points came over the final 3 1/2 minutes of the third quarter and the first 9:45 of the fourth, a crucial stretch when the Pacers held off runs that kept the Pistons within reach of the lead until the game's final minute.

He scored four of their final five points of the third period, then scored on four consecutive possessions midway through the fourth when Detroit was sniping three-pointers. He got to the basket nearly at will, running of Sabonis' screen and beating the defender who switched on to him, the 6-foot-8 Svi Mykhailuk, off the dribble.

"Just letting the game come to me," he said. "I have to credit Domas. He commands a lot of attention in the pick and roll and opened the lane up for me."

True, but inadvertently sending an opponent and referee into the photographers isn't "letting the game come to me." McConnell's effort and court awareness have been constants amid the Pacers' revolving lineups.

"Every game he comes out, you know he's going to give 110 percent," Sabonis said. "It's great having a guy who brings fire to the game. It's awesome."

Is McConnell the same way in practice?

"Oh, yeah," Sabonis said, laughing. "Even more."

McConnell led a reserve unit that outscored Detroit's backups 51-28, a turnabout from the two earlier meetings in which the Pistons' bench outscored the Pacers by 69 combined points. The other significant reversal was on the boards. The Pacers were outrebounded in each of the earlier meetings but gained a 44-40 advantage this time despite the size lost by the absence of Turner and Bitadze.

Andre Drummond, the NBA's leading rebounder at 18.6 per game, had grabbed 23 and 18 in the first two games but had just 13 this time. Sabonis played him head-to-head, finishing with 17 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists. Drummond, limited somewhat by foul trouble, had 15 points and eight assists.

It wasn't just Sabonis, though. McMillan had talked before the game of "smash rebounding," sending other players to the basket to help contain Drummond, who outweighs Sabonis by 40 pounds.

"Coach is always focusing on getting two (bodies) on him," said Sabonis, who has posted double-doubles in three consecutive games. "Team smash.

"Third time against them...if we didn't get it right tonight, then I don't know. We're professionals and we've got to go out and do what the coaches say."

The Pacers play next on Sunday at Orlando. Turner, who has missed the last four games, might return for that one. Lamb, who has a sprained ankle, should be back soon as well. Bitadze, who has a concussion, shouldn't be out for an extended period. Sumner should be back by the end of the month. Nobody dares predict Oladipo's return, but he'll be back at some point this season.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Pacers will carry on. They haven't yet had to face an elite team, so there's no telling what will happen then. But this much is certain: they won't be boring.

"We'll see," Sabonis said. "We just have to keep getting better."

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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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