The statistics sit there, staring them in the face, practically taunting them.
Last in 3-point field goal attempts per game.
Last in free throw attempts, too.
Can a team fatten up on the NBA schedule by subsisting on a diet of two-point field goals, avoiding the dessert of 3-pointers and the vegetables of free throws? Maybe, maybe not. But for now at least they have some other stats to show critics. They are scoring 5.5 points more than opponents on average, and after an 0-3 start have won seven of their eight previous games.
In other words, while hoping to expand their scoring options, they aren't sweating it.
"The goal is to put the ball in the basket, not to be the team that takes the most 3-point attempts," coach Nate McMillan said following Thursday's practice at St. Vincent Center. "Put the ball in the basket. I don't care how you do it."
The Pacers' game at Houston will put philosophies to the test, at least on a one-in-82 basis. In fact, if ever there were two teams more unalike than these two they likely were playing different sports. Opposite of the Pacers, the Rockets lead the NBA in 3-point shots made and attempted as well as free throws made and attempted. The footnote to all this is that the Pacers have better percentages in both categories.
Friday's game won't settle who's got the right idea about offense, though, largely because the Pacers will continue to play without Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Jeremy Lamb, and Edmond Sumner, although they might get Goga Bitadze back from a three-game absence. It's not as if they're a fully formed team.
They are, however, heading into a more difficult stretch of the schedule that will help clearly define them. Following Friday's game, they fly back to Indianapolis to meet Milwaukee, which is 7-4 heading into Thursday's game against Chicago. While the Pacers have had the NBA's easiest schedule to date and have yet to play a team that as of now has a winning record, they will play four winning teams the rest of this month and seven from Dec. 9-31.
It no doubt will be helpful if they can supplement their offense with more free throws and 3-point shots. They've been outscored by 30 points at the foul line and by 90 points at the 3-point line, which puts extreme pressure on their defense, turnover rate, and shooting accuracy to continue winning. But it would be harmful to stray too far from their natural talents and tendencies just to check off a couple of boxes.
McMillan had a preseason goal of 30 3-point shot attempts per game. His team is averaging 24.3, exactly 22 fewer than Houston. But he also had a goal of at least 110 points per game, and his team is just a half-point behind that objective despite an early run of injuries.
Besides, what's a team to do when Domantas Sabonis is setting bone-jarring screens that free up Malcolm Brogdon for mid-range jumpers and T.J. Warren is draining one-legged floaters and turnaround jump shots in the lane and Brogdon is beating people off the dribble for layups and T.J McConnell is plunging into the lane to wreak havoc on the defense?
"I'm seeing they are comfortable playing inside the 3-point line," McMillan said. "The goal is to put the ball in the basket, not to be the team that takes the most 3-point attempts. Put the ball in the basket. I don't care how you do it."
Or, as T.J. Warren puts it, "Whatever moves the scoreboard."
Anyone wanting to form an argument against the Pacers' offense could start by pointing a finger at Warren. Others, though, might want to send him a thank-you card because he's arguably the Pacers' best offensive weapon. He averages 18.5 points, a tick behind Brogdon (20.7) and Sabonis (19.8), but is taking fewer shots and showing a greater ability to create shots.
Warren isn't the 3-point threat he had been with Phoenix, where he hit 43 percent on 4.2 attempts per game last season (he's taking just 2.5 per game and hitting 29 percent of them) but he's feasting from within the arc. His unique knack for scoring has brought a new dimension to the offense, one that can't be taught or game-planned. He makes it look easy, and in fact he says it is. Last week, talking about his defense, he threw in the thought that "scoring is easy." He repeated the notion when it was brought up to him following Tuesday's victory over Oklahoma City, when he scored 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
"Scoring is easy," he said. "Floaters, all that, they're layups to me.
"I just take what the defense gives me. Whatever the defense gives me, I'm going to take it. I don't play the analytical game, I just play my game and know where I can be the most efficient."
It's unlikely any coach would threaten Warren's efficiency by having him cut back on two-point field goals, of which he's hit 67 percent over the previous six games, and direct him to the 3-point line for more 3-point shots. Particularly in what's intended to be the Pacers' starting lineup. Phoenix played Warren at the "spread four" position, matching him up against taller defenders and sending him out to the perimeter for open shots. With the Pacers, when Turner and Sabonis are both healthy, he fits better as a classic "three" who likely will find it easier to get off his shot closer to the basket against shorter defenders.
"He's somewhat of a throwback," McMillan said. "He likes to play in the paint. He likes the mid-range game.
"We'll take whatever basket he can give us."
Between the issues of 3-point attempts and free throws, McMillan is more concerned with the latter. Attacking the rim generally brings a positive result, whether it's a layup or drawing a foul. Brogdon does that better than anyone on the roster, averaging 4.5 free throw attempts per game while hitting 98 percent of them. Sabonis averages 3.8 attempts and hits 85 percent. Lamb averages four attempts, but after that there's a major drop-off to Warren's two attempts per game.
But, other than encouraging players to drive to the basket when possible, it's difficult to coax more free throws out of players.
"We do need to get to the free throw line, but I don't think we need to put an emphasis on it where we're throwing our bodies into guys trying to get to the free throw line," T.J. McConnell said. "We have to let the game come to us."
Two factors should bring more 3-pointers and foul shots to the Pacers' offense: the law of averages and a healthier roster.
Warren, Brogdon, Sabonis, and Lamb all are shooting well below their 3-point accuracy levels of last season. Their water likely will find its level.
Oladipo, Turner, Lamb, Bitadze and Sumner also should make the offense better, one way or another.
Turner, who has missed the previous seven games, hit 39 percent of his 3-point shots last season and had hit 8-of-15 before his injury. Lamb hit 35 percent last season. Bitadze shows potential, having hit 3-of-8 3-point attempts so far.
Oladipo, likely the last of the group to return, hit 37 percent of his 3-pointers two seasons ago. He slipped to 34 percent last season but still showed a knack for hitting the clutch ones. His return also should lead to more foul shots and 3-pointers for all. The team's quickest player, he can get to the rim and draw fouls; he hit a team-high 4.9 free throws two seasons ago. He also can dish to teammates for layups that draw fouls or to the perimeter for three-point shots when the defense collapses on him.
The upcoming schedule will help determine how much the Pacers need to adjust their style of play to compete with the league's elite teams. But the gradual return of injured players will address many of the concerns regardless.
"I think this is a process," Brogdon said. "As the season goes on and we become ourselves and we get healthy and get all of our guys back and our shooting back, we'll be able to shoot more threes. We'll play more of a versatile game."
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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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