Pacers Grew a Lot in 2018

A year ago at this time, the Pacers had just lost a home game to Minnesota by 17 points, a fourth consecutive loss that dropped their record to 19-18. Victor Oladipo wasn't playing, but they also were missing a sense of urgency and polished cohesion.

"We got to figure it out, man," Al Jefferson said after that game.

Now here we are at the close of 2018 and the Pacers just won their fifth consecutive game to improve to 25-12. They don't claim to have figured it out, but their growth has been superior to what anybody would have predicted a year ago. They won 54 games in the calendar year and are on pace to win more than that this season, although the schedule will be more difficult the rest of the way.

They have the same starting lineup and the same top two reserves as last season, but are a much different team. A more grown-up team. A more balanced team. Their team approach to defense had them ranked as the best unit in the NBA heading into Monday's 116-108 defeat of Atlanta at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and their offense has become so balanced that it weathered the storm of Oladipo's 11-game absence and probably will take Myles Turner's broken nose in stride as well.

Turner had to leave Monday's game with 4:44 left in the third quarter after blocking John Collins' dunk attempt. He suffered a bloody and slightly broken nose for his trouble, and left the game. But here's the thing: the Pacers led by 11 points when Turner retreated to the locker room with assistant trainer Carl Eaton, and got the lead up to 17 in the fourth period before the Hawks tightened the margin in the final two minutes.

You can thank Domantas Sabonis for that, to a great degree. Sabonis, according to advanced analytics, is the Pacers' best player when his production and playing time are factored, and is in fact one of the best in the NBA. As backup centers go, he's a rare luxury. He finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, just as Turner did. He can't block shots (four) or drain 3-pointers (three-of-four) as Turner did on Sunday, but when there are noses to be broken, he's more likely to give than receive.

Turner will be checked more thoroughly on Tuesday, but expects to return as a masked man for Friday's game in Chicago.

Myles Turner

Photo Credit: Jessica Hoffman

"I'm not overly concerned about it," Turner said. "Just a casualty of war. Have to keep going."

Turner said he doesn't believe he suffered a concussion, but if for some reason he can't play against the Bulls, Kyle O'Quinn will move into the rotation behind Sabonis at center. That would be the same O'Quinn who produced a double-double the last time he received extended playing time, in Orlando on Dec. 7.

"Just do what we've been doing," McMillan said. "Next man up."

Atlanta has had success against the Pacers' defense, scoring 121 points in the Pacers' victory in Atlanta last week and 108 on Monday. Still, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has been impressed with what he's had to go up against.

"They do a great job playing team defense," he said. "You break the film down, and when you have the clicker you can slow it down. You see them all move at the same time. A pick-and-roll occurs, strong side goes to weak side, weak side comes to strong side. They do a great job of using their length. They do a great job positioning. It makes it hard. It makes it hard to get in the paint, and they do a good job on the second effort of getting out to shooters as well."

The same degree of unity applies to the Pacers' offense, which shares and shares alike as few in franchise history have done. Oladipo led the scoring on Monday with 22 points, becoming the fifth different player to do so in the past four games. Sabonis and Darren Collison shared it in the previous game with 19, Thaddeus Young led the scoring in the game before that with 21 and Turner led in the game before that with 18. The only starter left out of the baton handoffs is Bojan Bogdanovic, who has led the Pacers' scoring more often than anyone other than Oladipo this season, and has reached double figures in 28 consecutive games.

Not every NBA player wants to play on a team with that kind of balance. Some want to be stars that shine the brightest. But the Pacers all claim to want things the way they are, their lone All-Star included.

"Is it fun to play on teams with this kind of balance?" Oladipo was asked.

"It's a lot easier to win games, too," he said.

Balance, teamwork and improvement would be worthy New Year's resolutions for most teams, but the Pacers already have achieved them. Now it's a matter of continuing to improve. "We haven't accomplished anything," Oladipo said after the game and he's right. Seasons ultimately are measured by postseason success, rather than what happens against a relatively easy schedule in December.

Still, the Pacers came a long way in 2018. And they appear poised to keep going.

"We're getting better as a team," Oladipo said. "We're just continuing to learn each other, continuing to grow. The scary part is we can improve. We're not as close as we need to be to go where we want to go."

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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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