Pacers Not Shy About Letting It Fly This Season

When he was introduced as the new head coach of the Pacers on Oct. 20, Nate Bjorkgren promised that his teams would play a different style than Pacers fans had grown accustomed to seeing in recent years.

Indiana has only played two preseason games so far, but one major difference already stands out. Just pull up a box score and look at the Pacers' 3-point attempts.

The Blue & Gold ranked last in the NBA in 3-point attempts last season under Nate McMillan, attempting 28 shots per game from beyond the arc. They hoisted 84 3-pointers over their two exhibitions in Cleveland, 44 on Saturday and 40 more on Monday.

To put that figure in perspective, the Pacers have attempted 40 or more 3-pointers in just three regular season games in franchise history. Two of those games came on back-to-back nights last season, when they attempted 40 threes at Milwaukee on Dec. 22 and then 41 the next night in an overtime game against Toronto. The current franchise record of 42 attempts was set in a game that went to double overtime in Cleveland on April 2, 2017.

But under Bjorkgren, 40 3-point attempts could become the norm. During Wednesday's post-practice media availability, he seemed quite content with the numbers from over the weekend.

"40-plus (attempts) both of those games, but they were all really good looks," Bjorkgren said. "Our guys did a good job of making the extra pass, looking for each other, and sharing the ball."

Analytics have driven 3-point attempts up across the league and Bjorkgren is bringing the Pacers' offense into the modern era. Houston has attempted over 40 3-pointers per game in each of the past four seasons, including 45.3 a year ago. Dallas joined the Rockets in that 40-attempt club last year, shooting over 41 per game. 11 teams took 35 or more 3-pointers last season, including Toronto, where Bjorkgren was an assistant coach (the Raptors ranked sixth in the NBA at 37 attempts per game).

But while the Pacers' 3-point attempts are way up this preseason, players insist that it isn't the primary focus of Bjorkgren's offense.

"Our coaches, they're not emphasizing (shooting more 3-pointers), per se," sharpshooter Doug McDermott said. "They want us to play the game the right way. I think it starts with getting in the paint and then spraying out. He really wants us to get to the rim as much as possible."

The idea in Bjorkgren's system is not simply to jack up as many threes as possible. Those shots are instead a byproduct of driving and kicking.

The offense also emphasizes much more movement among the players who do not have the ball in their hands.

In Saturday's preseason opener, forward Justin Holiday went 4-for-7 from 3-point range. All seven of his attempts came from the corner. One of the principal understandings of basketball analytics is that the corner three is the most efficient shot available because it is worth the most possible points but from a shorter distance than elsewhere on the 3-point arc.

Holiday insisted that his attempts all being in the corner was more a byproduct of how Cleveland was defending, but noted that someone will always be moving to that spot in Bjorkgren's offense.

"We did a very good job of getting the ball into the paint, having them collapse," Holiday said. "Kick-outs happened to be (open) in the corners. Sometimes it's going to be to the wings, sometimes it's going to be to the corner and then swing to the wings."

McDermott and Holiday led Indiana in 3-point attempts a year ago and, not coincidentally, were also the team's two best shooters in terms of 3-point percentage. Bjorkgren has certainly encouraged them to keep shooting — McDermott said the new coach told him this offseason he wanted McDermott to be more willing to take deeper 3-point shots if they're open — but the green light to shoot extends across the team.

That extends even to players that might not be known as 3-point shooters.

All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis earns his paycheck with his play in the post and attempted just over one 3-point shot per game a year ago. Sabonis still was a presence on the block in the two preseason contests, but he also ventured beyond the 3-point arc a bit more often and took five 3-pointers over the first two games.

Reserve guard T.J. McConnell and backup big man JaKarr Sampson are probably the two players on the roster least inclined to take a three. McConnell attempted just 17 and Sampson took 13 a year ago. Yet McConnell took one in each of the first two exhibitions. Sampson took one on Saturday and then made one of two 3-point attempts on Monday.

"If you're wide open you have to shoot it," Holiday said. "That's just how basketball works. We generated this offense, we generated the ball movement around for open spots. We are encouraging pretty much everyone to shoot the ball because everyone here can pretty much shoot it."

McDermott, Bitadze Back at Practice

The Pacers attempted 40 3-pointers on Monday despite McDermott playing under three minutes. The sharpshooter exited the game in the first quarter with a left knee contusion and did not return, but said he was able to fully participate in practice on Wednesday.

"It was one of those deals where I had kind of a bruise on my knee from a previous practice and I got hit on the exact same spot," McDermott said. "It probably looked a little worse than it already was. I just kind of had something already nagging there...I'm just fortunate that the swelling went down and I'm able to play now."

Second-year center Goga Bitadze also practiced Wednesday. Bitadze missed the first two preseason games with a sprained right ankle.

Starting center Myles Turner did not practice Wednesday. Turner was a late scratch before Monday's game due to illness. Bjorkgren did say he spoke with Turner prior to practice and it remains a possibility that he could be available to play in Indiana's final preseason tune-up on Wednesday.

The team announced that starting forward T.J. Warren was "week-to-week" on Dec. 10 due to plantar fasciitis. Bjorkgren said that Warren did some on-court work while traveling with the team to Cleveland, but he still has not been cleared for any live practice.

"He wants to play really bad — you guys know T.J., really, really bad," Bjorkgren said. "But not yet."