Nate McMillan wasn't going to deny the obvious. Asked Sunday if he had been pleased when he learned that day's opponent, Washington, had played a triple-overtime game the previous night, McMillan did not hesitate.
"Absolutely," he said. "You want to try to take advantage of that, absolutely."
The fact the Pacers did just that in their 105-89 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse might qualify as an indication of improved maturity. The Wizards were just 13-20 entering the game and losers of six of their previous eight, so adding opponent's fatigue to the mix seemed to make it the closest thing to a holiday gift the Pacers could get.
Problem is, they had a similar game last Tuesday against Cleveland, a losing team further weakened by injuries, and managed to lose it by not taking it seriously enough. McMillan didn't bring up that unpleasant memory in his pregame conversation with the players, but they hadn't forgotten.
"That game against Cleveland, I'm still trying to figure out what happened, why we didn't have the energy at that time, because we were playing good basketball," McMillan said. "But you don't ever write a W in. I don't ever assume a win. You have to go out and earn that."
The Pacers earned this victory — which improved their record to 22-12 and left them tied with Philadelphia for third place in the Eastern Conference — by trying to take advantage of Washington's tired legs. They pushed the tempo, defended aggressively, and tried to make the Wizards expend effort into defense by moving the ball.
Washington hit just 37 percent of its attempts, 26 percent of its 3-point shots, was outrebounded by 20, and committed 22 turnovers. The Pacers get some of the credit that. So do the Wizards for having to go triple-overtime against Phoenix, which shares the NBA's worst record. And so does the league's schedule-maker for allowing the game to begin at 5:00 PM, 22 hours after Saturday's game began for the Wizards.
"It was an early game today, which was a little bit messed up, but it's no excuse," said Washington guard Bradley Beal, who hit just 2-of-11 shots.
The Pacers dominated the game in the middle quarters, taking a lead that peaked at 23 points early in the fourth quarter. They became sloppy the rest of the way, as they tend to do when gaining a comfortable advantage. They committed nine turnovers in the final frame and were outscored by a team that hit 39 percent of its field goal attempts.
Photo Credit: Walt Thomas
"You don't play the scoreboard like that," McMillan said. "We got sloppy in the fourth quarter again."
The Pacers admit they have plenty of room for improvement. Maintaining effort and focus while playing with a sizable lead wouldn't be a bad place to start. Still, they have the look of a team that's finding itself, figuring the best way to play and gaining confidence. There were several indications of that in Sunday's victory:
• Myles Turner is now spitting out double-doubles almost routinely. He had 18 points and a career-high 17 rebounds on Sunday, the ninth time in the previous 14 games he's achieved double figures in both categories. He also leads the NBA in blocked shots, and had two against the Wizards.
The change came when he began focusing less on scoring and more on defense and rebounding. And as often happens when players do that, the points have come more easily.
"Myles has figured out he doesn't have to score to have an impact on the game," Darren Collison said.
• Turner's backup, Domantas Sabonis, added another double-double – his 15th of the season - with 15 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes. He hit 6-of-7 shots, raising his field goal percentage to .628. The current franchise record is .589 by Ian Mahinmi, who is now buried on Washington's bench.
• Bojan Bogdanovic scored 14 points, running his streak of double-figure games to 25. His scoring has become so routine that it makes about as much noise as he does while slipping out of the locker room practically unnoticed while others are being interviewed.
• Victor Oladipo continued to focus more on passing than shooting. By the time he put up his first shot – which he hit– on Sunday with 5:37 left in the second quarter, he had racked up six assists. He finished with a game-high nine assists, along with six rebounds and 12 points on 13 field goal attempts.
"Just making the right play," he said. "They were trying to double me anytime they could. Just finding the open guy."
• Oladipo's approach enabled the Pacers to put seven players in double figures, with Cory Joseph nearly missing out by scoring eight points. They're 6-1 when doing so.
Add Thaddeus Young's near double-double with 10 points and nine rebounds and rookie Aaron Holiday's 12-point outing while filling in for the injured Tyreke Evans in the backcourt and the Pacers' bounty of balance and depth were on full display. The Wizards were going to have a difficult time contending with those qualities even if they had been fresh.
"You're starting to see who we are," McMillan said. "(But it) continues to be a work in progress. I don't think we've peaked yet. We can certainly be better."
The Pacers can't be too much better defensively, other than doing a better job of contesting 3-point shots, but they entered Sunday's game ranked 22nd in rebounding and 16th in turnovers. Free throw shooting is trending upward but still ranks 23rd in the league. And there's that issue of maintaining luxurious leads, too, which bit them in their loss at Toronto last Wednesday when they let a 17-point third-quarter lead slip away.
They're a nice-guy team, one that doesn't seem to have a mean bone in its collective body, so a killer instinct against weaker competition would be a welcome addition. That issue will continue to be in play in the days ahead. They'll have a light practice Monday morning, then leave for Atlanta at 7:00 PM on Tuesday. Their next four games consist of two against the Hawks (9-23) and one each against Detroit (15-16) and Chicago (9-25).
They're all should-be victories, just like Sunday's game - but also just like the one last week against Cleveland. The focus will be on improvement rather than the opponent.
<p"There's still room for us to keep getting better," Oladipo said. "We can be an even better team than we are now. A way-better team than we are now."
<pThey'll need to be when the schedule offers fewer advantages.
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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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