Miles Re-Emerging Amid Challenging Season
C.J. Miles had what was widely regarded as the best of all the Pacers' offseasons, a summer filled with lonely hours in the gym honing his craft. Then he made the biggest personal sacrifice of the Pacers' season, volunteering to play out of position in an attempt to find a workable formula for the small ball strategy.
His reward for all of this? He got beat up, injured, removed from the starting lineup and missed 16 games – which is the thank you get sometimes in life, although he doesn't dwell on the negatives.
Miles had a re-emergence of sorts in the Pacers' victory over New Orleans on Thursday, scoring 19 points in 26 minutes off the bench. It was a crucial contribution to help avoid what could have been an embarrassing loss to a depleted team, and an indication of what he (still) has to offer in the team's stretch drive toward the playoffs.
After missing so much action and struggling to regain his game and his place in the playing rotation amid a deep bench, Thursday's performance gave him the appearance of a nearly-forgotten secret weapon who could become an important cog in a closing run.
Miles' status was elevated further by the injury to Paul George on Thursday, a lower leg contusion that isn't serious but could keep him out of Saturday's game at Brooklyn. If so, Miles likely would start, or at the very least would get more minutes – something coach Frank Vogel has tried to do the last two games to help get Miles back in a groove.
"I haven't taken Solomon Hill's minutes away because of Solomon Hill, that's for sure," Vogel said following Friday's practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "We definitely want to get C.J. in there and help him get a rhythm. We're going to need him. He's certainly a big part of what we're hoping to do down the stretch. It was good to see him get going (Thursday) night."
Miles eased his way into the game against the Pelicans, shaking off the rust as he went along. He missed two mid-range shots and committed a turnover in less than a minute early in the second half, but then hit an 18-footer a minute later. And then hit a 15-footer 2 1/2 minutes later. And then scored eight points in 7 1/2 minutes in the third quarter and seven points in 10 minutes of the fourth period.
His 19 points amounted to his highest-scoring game since he scored 27 points at Brooklyn on Feb. 3. That offers a pleasant memory of what he can do as the Pacers return there for Saturday's game. He hit 10-of-15 field goals that night, including 4-of-7 3-pointers. He made a few easy shots early, found a rhythm and was off and running.
Which is what he's trying to do now.
"I'm healthy," he said. "Now it's about getting back into playing shape and getting my legs under me again."
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Miles wasn't expecting things to turn out this way as he put in all those summertime hours in The Fieldhouse. Invigorated by his finish to the previous season — when he averaged 18.8 points while hitting 49 percent of his 3-pointers over the last four games — and by the plan to go with a smaller spread lineup that would cater to his strengths, he worked out five days most weeks, trying to improve his ballhandling and shooting.
It went well at first, as the Pacers jumped to a 12-5 start despite losing their first three games. Miles played in 14 of those games and averaged 15 points while hitting 42 percent of his 3-pointers. While George balked at the dirty work of defending power forwards, he solved the issue by volunteering to take on the task. Battling around the basket with guys weighing 40 more pounds took its toll, however, the exact reason George had been so hesitant to do it.
Miles suffered back and shoulder injuries that kept him out of a few games, and limited him when he did play.
"I was in great shape to play my position (on a wing), but not in great shape to get beat up," he said. "I had never been in that position before, I had never been hit that way, at least that much for a period of time. It wore me down, and I was trying to figure out how to keep from getting hit (while playing).
"It was slowing me down and taking me away from the extra work I like to do. I was trying to make sure I had the legs and energy to heal up and play in the game. It was tough; it was different. And we were starting to win games, so I definitely wasn't going to complain about it. If that's what I had to do to make us better, that's what I had to do."
After sitting out a victory in Oklahoma City, his sixth injury-related absence of the season, Miles returned for the game in Orlando on Feb. 21. He hit 6-of-8 shots in 13 minutes, but suffered a strained calf muscle as he landed after hitting a 3-pointer. He missed the next nine games.
Miles had been shuffling in and out of the starting lineup before that injury, as Vogel adjusted to the opponents, and then lost his starting position for good when the emergence of Myles Turner made it obviously prudent for Vogel to go with a "big" starting lineup the rest of the season.
Sometimes players with the best attitudes get penalized as coaches strive to maintain peace and find chemistry within the locker room. Miles falls into that category, having played whatever position at whatever time without complaint.
He has no regrets about a season that so far hasn't turned out as he planned.
"I wouldn't call it disappointing, because I've definitely had some bright spots," he said. "It's been different than I thought it was going to be. But I never try to look at the dark side, I try to figure out what's working and what I can make work. If I let that start weighing on me, it never goes well.
"I just look at it as now that I'm back at my position, how do I turn the rest of the season in to a bright spot? Keep building, keep building. Obviously the season hasn't gone the way I want it to go, but it's not about me. It's about the team and us all together. That's who I've been. That's who I've always been."
Miles finished last season well because he was put in a consistent role that allowed him to play to his strengths. He has hope for the same ending to this season, although this time it will be off the bench. Barring injury – to him or a starter – he knows he'll play, knows his role and knows who he'll play with most of the time.
That's good enough for him.
"That's why I've been (in the NBA) this long, because of that mindset," he said. "I always figure it out. It doesn't always go smoothly, but I always figure it out."
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