Pacers Start Anew

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

February 17, 2014 | 11:01 PM

The NBA All-Star break flips a page for teams that have hope for a postseason appearance, allowing them to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Days get longer, games become more meaningful and the weather gets warmer – eventually, anyway.

So, the Pacers team that stumbled into the break by losing three of its last eight games, including two at home, will be expected to return with fresh legs and outlooks when the season resumes Tuesday night against Atlanta at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“The dog days are gone,” coach Frank Vogel declared following Monday's practice on the Fieldhouse's main court. “It's time to prepare for the home stretch. Thirty games remaining. We need to re-establish the focus we started the season with. We started 9-0 and 16-1. (We need) that kind of sacrifice and mentality.”

Vogel, whose staff coached the East to a victory in Sunday's All-Star game in New Orleans, said he was pleased with the team's first post-break practice.

“This is traditionally the worst practice of the year,” he said. “I didn't think it was bad at all. We had positive energy, guys worked really hard. Nobody looked like they needed conditioned. Nobody looked like they had forgotten the plays, which happens sometimes over All-Star break. Guys were pretty sharp.”

Vogel will take a repeat of last season, when the Pacers won their first four games after the break, and six of their first seven. This team, at 42-10, has the best record in the East, 2 ½ games ahead of Miami, the only other conference team regarded as a Finals contender.

Feeling the Heat on their backs should be enough to keep the Pacers motivated the rest of the way.

“We've got somewhere we want to get to,” said Paul George, who played in the All-Star game along with Roy Hibbert.

“This past weekend was fun. But nothing's more fun than chasing a championship.”

Bynum Practices

While his new teammates spread out across the country or found warm islands over All-Star break, Andrew Bynum stayed in Indianapolis and worked out with the Pacers' training staff every day.

He lifted weights and worked in the exercise pool for two to three hours each day, trying to get his ailing knees back into shape.

“It's hard work,” said Bynum, a man of as few words as will suffice. “Just do it and get your body in shape.”

Bynum took part in his first practice on Monday, but not in the parts that included contact. He shot, ran through dummy offense and participated in drills. Then he went home or hung around downtown.

“Indy's been pretty cool so far,” he said. “I live right downtown, so there's a lot of options.”

Bynum, who signed with the Pacers on Feb. 1, had been watching games from the bench in street clothes and working out on his own until Monday. Now that he's been here a couple of weeks, he's starting to feel like part of the team.

“The coach is good here,” he said. “It's kind of easy to fit in. Just show up, work hard and do your job. I like that. No shenanigans. Everybody seems to like each other. I fit in here. They play through the bigs already, so I'm just waiting for the opportunity to play.”

Don't expect to see him in a game uniform anytime soon, though. Vogel said Bynum will have to practice a few weeks before he's allowed to play, and that clock starts ticking when he can have live contact.

“We're not close to seeing him in uniform,” Vogel said. “I'm week to week with it.”

Scola Hoping Elbow Heals

The break didn't cure Luis Scola's right elbow, which has affected his shooting lately. It was still slightly stiff during Monday's practice.

“I don't know exactly what it is,” he said.

“It's been bothering me for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. I think it's something that's going to be there. I just have to find a way to get it better while I play with it. I don't believe in excuses. It's not a big injury. It's part of the game.”

Scola entered the season shooting .505 from the field over his NBA career. He's shooting a career-low .457 this season, and just 33 percent (32 of 97) over the past 13 games. He missed all five shots in the loss to Dallas before the break.

He said he'll have to adjust his style of play on offense if he doesn't get back to normal soon.

“Hopefully I start shooting better, but if I keep shooting worse we'll have to see.”

George Meets His Idol

George met a lot of people over All-Star Weekend, mostly a varied collection of entertainment celebrities and corporate sponsor types.

His most meaningful encounter, however, came with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who sat out the All-Star game with an injury. Bryant was George's favorite player while he was growing up in Palmdale, Calif., about an hour outside of Los Angeles, and he had yet to have a conversation of more than a few words.

“That was one of the coolest moments being down there,” George said.

Bryant's message?

“Just encouraging words,” George said. “To continue to keep going. I'm on the right path, playing at a high level, playing great basketball. He's a big fan.”

George wasn't as much a fan of the dunk contest on Saturday. He was part of the winning three-man East team, but Washington's John Wall was judged the individual winner. Most fans were surprised by the contest's abrupt ending. George understood the new format, but wanted to keep going with a round of individual competition.

“It just seemed like it was over a little too quick,” he said.

“I thought it would have been fun (to continue). Whether it was another round or competing against the (other) guys who won in the East.”

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