The Pacers returned to the practice court Friday after a day off that followed their unprecedented week-long preseason road trip. It marked the beginning of what amounts to a five-day mini-camp leading into next Wednesday's season opener.
Was it a turning point of some sort? Hardly. Just where they stand and just what they need to work on before meeting Memphis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is all a bit vague, given the nature of short preseasons and long (and unpredictable) regular seasons.
Coach Nate McMillan liked some of what he saw, didn't like some of what he saw, and summarized his focus for the remaining practices by saying, "We just have to go back to the basics."
Indeed, drawing conclusions from any preseason, and particularly one that produces a 2-2 record, is risky. Sometimes the preseason record offers a hint of what lies ahead and sometimes it's totally irrelevant.
The 1980-81 Pacers team that reached the NBA playoffs for the first time was 6-1 in the preseason. The 1994-95 team that won a then-NBA franchise record 52 games went 6-2. The three Larry Bird-coached teams that all advanced at least as far as the conference finals were a combined 13-4 in the preseason.
On the other hand, the 2003-04 Pacers team that won a franchise-record 61 games went 3-5 in the preseason. The 2013-14 team that started the season 16-1 and reached the conference finals went 3-5. Examples abound both ways.
The biggest negative of the trip was the sour note struck in Wednesday's 104-89 loss in Chicago. McMillan had targeted that game as the most important one, the final preparation for the regular season and a dress rehearsal for fighting through closeout games in the regular season. His team responded with its worst performance of the four games, bringing a letdown rather than a tuneup.
"We just didn't play well," Victor Oladipo said. "They played better than us from start to finish. They had more energy, more juice. We have to do a better job of being ready to play."
Asked if being on the road for eight days qualified as an excuse for such a performance, McMillan said, "It's not an excuse, we..." Then he stopped.
"Say that again?" he said. "I hear the word excuse and kind of go crazy."
The question repeated, McMillan continued.
"There's no excuse for that," he said. "We don't make excuses. That's part of NBA basketball. As I talked to the guys before the game, we're going to have one or two of those situations this season."
The Pacers will have five road trips of three games or more, including a five-game Eastern Conference journey to begin the new year in January. All teams suffer from the schedule at times, but the best ones have the fewest breakdowns.
The loss in Chicago, then, will have to serve as a lesson learned.
"It is preseason, you can expect some of those things," McMillan said. "But we want to build off of that."
Enough individual positives came out of the trip to maintain the team's considerable optimism for the upcoming season. Victor Oladipo averaged 19.7 points and hit 48 percent of his 3-point attempts. Thaddeus Young, who had sat the training camp practices and the first three exhibition games with a bone bruise in his right foot, scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Chicago. Domantas Sabonis displayed the improvement that had been described by others in training camp by producing a double-double in each game.
Perhaps most notable, however, was the play of two unproven players, Edmond Sumner and TJ Leaf.
Sumner, who played two minutes in the final regular season game last season, averaged nine points in 15 minutes per game, hit two-thirds of his field goal attempts and played outstanding defense. Leaf, who started in place of Young, led the team in minutes played (30.1 per game) and averaged 11.7 points on 57 percent shooting and 7.7 rebounds.
Both at the very least solidified their status, but didn't necessarily work their way into regular playing time. McMillan considers Leaf the 10th man in a nine-man rotation but will try to find opportunities to play him. Sumner is on a two-way contract with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and likely will spend significant time with them.
The greatest team positive from the trip was rebounding, a persistent issue with McMillan's two previous Pacers teams. They outrebounded every opponent on the trip.
The biggest negatives were perimeter shooting, an anticipated strength and an area addressed by offseason acquisitions, and turnovers. They hit just 33 percent of their 3-pointers and averaged 19 turnovers.
Then again, it was merely the preseason. For players such as Doug McDermott and Myles Turner, neither of whom shot well from the 3-point line, percentages from a few seasons worth of real games trumps those from four preseason games.
McMillan's focus in the remaining preseason practices will be "basics" such as more ball pressure and communication on defense, better screens and spacing on offense and a faster tempo with fewer called sets. Better conditioning, too.
If nothing else, the one-sided loss in Chicago dashed any potential notions of overconfidence and set the tone for serious-minded practices.
"We have to be ready to play night-in and night-out," Oladipo said. "It showed us we need to tighten up some things and get ready for the season."
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