This wasn't how it was supposed to go in their highly anticipated season opener, not after the glow emanating from a series of widely praised offseason changes and the hopeful indications that took root in the preseason games.
Then again, they never did claim they would have it figured out from the very beginning.
The Pacers' 119-100 loss to Detroit at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday was predictable in that a team with four new starters and five first-year players getting playing time lacked cohesion at times. Other aspects of its performance were less foreseeable and more mysterious.
"They were grittier; they scrapped a little harder than we did," Nate McMillan said.
"We got outworked tonight," Myles Turner said.
"Lack of communication and toughness," Malcolm Brogdon said.
Give them credit for not being in denial, then. And, it's true that homecourt season openers can be like playoff openers in that they often go awry because the heightened anticipation brings more anxiety than energy. But it doesn't have to be that way, and certainly hasn't always been for the Pacers, who had won eight of the previous nine home openers.
The Pacers got a few outstanding individual efforts, but not enough balance to overcome the wrecking crew known as Andre Drummond and the career night of Luke Kennard.
Drummond scored 32 points, one off his career high, and grabbed 23 rebounds. Great as he was, it wasn't a shock. He's been doing that sort of thing for the better part of his seven NBA seasons, which is why he's played in two All-Star Games and would have been voted to more if he had played on more winning teams.
He also weighs 280 pounds, 30 more than Myles Turner and 40 more than Domantas Sabonis. They felt every ounce of his manhood through his 40 minutes in the game. And now that Drummond is hitting foul shots (8-of-10 on Wednesday) and showing improved mobility, it seemed practically unfair.
"I've played against him many times," Turner said. "It's not a one-man job. You have to hit first. I just have to be more physical with him in the near future."
Photo Credit: Matt Kryger
Kennard actually was the greater factor in the outcome. The third-year guard scored 30 points, two more than his previous career high, and hit 6-of-9 3-pointers. He scored 16 points in the fourth quarter when the Pistons scored 36 points and overcame a four-point deficit midway through the period.
"The fourth quarter, we let them get scrappier than us," Sabonis said. "They were more physical."
The physicality showed in rebounding, which had been a major emphasis of the preseason. The Pacers gave up nine more than they got, although they can take some solace in the fact they won't play against Drummond every night, just four times. They also fell nine short of McMillan's goal of 30 3-point attempts, a not unrelated stat. More rebounds on the defensive end will bring more 3-pointers in transition and more on the offensive end will lead to uncontested 3-pointers against a scrambled defense. Kennard got one of those in the final period off Derrick Rose's rebound of his own miss and assist to give the Pistons a four-point lead and force a Pacer timeout with 4:38 left.
Hope for the Pacers' season starts with the debut of Turner and Sabonis as a starting duo. Sabonis scored 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds. Turner scored 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-7 3-pointers, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots. Most games, 52 points and 22 rebounds from them will be enough.
Brogdon, meanwhile, came as billed, finishing with 22 points and 11 assists with just two turnovers. He took charge in the third quarter, attacking the basket and drawing fouls that sent him to the foul line for six attempts. He had just two in the first half, excluding a technical foul free throw.
"I was feeling it out," he said. "I wanted to get to the basket (in the second half) and they were letting me get there."
The other starters, newcomers T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb, scored 10 each. Warren suffered a bruised right hip in the fourth quarter after attempting to dunk amid traffic in transition and falling hard to the floor. He reclined facedown for about a minute and had to be helped off the court, but said afterward he is "going to be fine" and will play in the next game Saturday in Cleveland.
McMillan said earlier this week he was looking forward to having video of a real game to begin working out kinks. He has one now. Sabonis echoed that thought.
"I think it's great that we're going to have film," he said. "For me, it's great once you see it because no matter what the coaches say it's easier to visualize."
There will be plenty to work on, as there would be for any team with so many new faces. But the starting point will have more to do with raw effort than strategy.
"It was just one of those games that the feel wasn't there," Turner said. "Even the start of the game, we didn't feel like we did in the preseason. It's faster now. You have to adjust to the atmosphere, you have to adjust to the game. It's going to take some time to get that camaraderie we had in the preseason.
"We got outworked and they were a little grittier than we were. There's some stuff to clean up. It's gonna take reps."
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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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