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Pacers Thriving on Sudden and Special Chemistry

by Mark Montieth Writer

Watch them on the bench, during timeouts, and you'll see it. And then you'll understand why they are, if not the toast of the town, at least the refreshing appetizer you weren't expecting.

It's because they talk. The coaches are out on the court discussing strategy, and the players are huddled around the five guys in the game, and there's a conversation going on. Talking among the players is optional, of course, as last season's team proved by sitting stone-faced and staring into space while waiting for the coaches to come and tell them what to do.

These players talk.

"Sometimes guys (last season) said things, but I don't think it resonated through everybody's mind," said Thaddeus Young, one of two returning starters from that team. "As opposed to this year, anybody who says something, it all resonates. It's like we have three timeouts. There's one right before Coach comes, then we have the one when Coach comes, then when the five that's (in the game) is walking back to the court, we huddle up by the scorer's table and we talk then.

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"We all converse and have fun and enjoy each other, and we're doing some big things."

It fits together, the "have fun" and "doing some big things." These Pacers have developed a brand of chemistry rarely equaled in the franchise's 50 previous seasons, and they are resonating with fans like few teams before. Their 16-11 record heading into Wednesday's game against Oklahoma City isn't anything sensational, and in fact would be a disappointment in some seasons. But in a season so many people expected would end with about 30 victories and no playoff appearance, it seems like a gift.

Victor Oladipo has been a sensation, lifting his scoring average from 15.9 for the Thunder last season to 24.5 for the Pacers. His scoring outbursts, timely shot-making, raw athleticism, humble approach and dedication to playing in Indiana, where he first gained fame as a collegian, has captured the hearts of fans.

But his is not a solo flight. The glaring camaraderie of the group, evident from pre-game warmups to the post-game locker room and all the moments between, has inspired him as well. Give new team president Kevin Pritchard credit for assembling a team that's far exceeding most expectations, but some things can't be planned or predicted. The speed and ease with which this group melded so strongly is one of them. There's a bit of kismet involved here, a happily fateful occurrence that balances some of the bad luck of recent seasons.

It doesn't come around often, for any franchise. The Pacers team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 was 10-11 on Dec. 9 of 2012, then fell into sync and hit stride. The ride to Game 7 of the conference finals was joyful, as was the 16-1 start to the following season. But cracks formed as that team began receiving national publicity and some players became distracted by the attention or frustrated by their role, and it struggled to repeat its journey to the conference finals in 2014.

The Pacers team that won a franchise-record 61 games in the 2003-04 season won on raw talent, but there was always a degree of uncertainty and friction behind the scenes, the result of its youthful core and Ron Artest's unpredictability.

The last Pacers team to duplicate the current group's harmony likely was the first one coached by Larry Bird, in the 1997-98 season. That group was thrilled to have a legendary player, one whom most of them had played against, come and coach them, and carried on like rambunctious Little Leaguers throughout a season that ended in a Game 7 loss to Chicago in the conference finals. The joyride lasted through the next lockout-shortened season, but ended abruptly after the disappointment of another loss in the conference finals in 1999. The third season under Bird was largely a slog, but regained momentum in the playoffs and ended with the franchise's only trip to the NBA Finals. But a major rebuild followed.

Larry Brown's first team also captured the city's fancy after it overcame a 15-23 start in the 1992-93 season and went on to reach the conference finals, and then maintained it for another season that ended in the conference finals in '94. But it came apart when his third team lost in the first round of the playoffs, and completely dissipated in his fourth season, which failed to bring a playoff appearance.

The staying power of this team remains to be seen. Should it be 16-11 again at this time next season, fans likely will be disappointed. But for now its bond qualifies as something special, something to be appreciated, and something with the potential to last into future seasons. The players preach that viewpoint after each victory, marveling at their sudden cohesiveness.

There are no petty jealousies over playing time or roles. Veteran Al Jefferson isn't playing, but mentors the younger players and maintains an upbeat demeanor. Third-string point guard Joe Young tweets that he's one of the "best scorers in the world," but focuses on defense for the sake of the team. Starters who find themselves on the bench in the closing minutes of a close game cheer on the reserves who have taken their place. Reserves who have played well go back to the bench without complaint when the starters are called upon to finish.

Lance Stephenson was a starter on the conference finalists of 2013 and '14, and has experienced good chemistry. But this is different.

"This is the best team I've ever played on as far as chemistry, sticking together, believing in one another," he said. "We're bringing it every night.

"There's no hate, know what I mean? Some guys get mad about somebody doing good. This team wants its teammates to do good. That's what's going to make us even better."

Co-captain Thad Young is in his 11th NBA season, more than enough time to witness firsthand the gamut of the NBA experience. He started in Philadelphia, playing with and tutored by sages such as Andre Iguodala, Theo Ratliff, Elton Brand, Donyell Marshall, and Sam Dalembert. He's at the other end of the spectrum now, but sees a similar self-motivated group here, with more youthful energy.

That's one factor in its knack for digging out of large holes, such as the 19-point lead Denver had on Sunday before it came back to win in overtime.

"We believe each and every possession, if we take it step by step, we're gonna get ourselves back in the game no matter how much time is on the clock," Young said. "We keep playing, no matter what. We always come to the bench when we're down 10 or 15 points and say, 'Hey, we've got this much time left, let's try to make a run here and see where it takes us.'

"It's been good for us so far. We feed off each other's energy and stick to the plan. We just go out there and have fun and play."

Walk into the locker room, and you see the chemistry there, too. And hear it. Married couples sometimes establish such a chemistry they can finish one another's sentences in conversation. This team has that kind of vibe, too, following games. It's become difficult to interview one of them without another one entering the conversation. Oladipo was talking about the "phenomenal" camaraderie following Sunday's victory, and began looking at the nameplates above the locker stalls around the room to give credit to teammates.

He mentioned Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Thad Young, Stephenson, Darren Collison, TJ Leaf, and Bojan Bogdanovic.

"They just make the game so much easier for me," he said.

Suddenly, a voice from off to Oladipo's right interrupted the conversation.

"Hey!" Damien Wilkins shouted.

"Don't forget D-Wil," Oladipo said, as Wilkins laughed. "Damien Wilkins. His wisdom helps me throughout the game as well. It's amazing how guys in this locker room lift each other up. It's amazing the guys in this locker room, what they're capable of. It's a blessing and honor to play with these guys night in and night out."

Moments later, someone asked Oladipo about the "MVP!" chant that rang out among the fans in the final minute of his 47-point performance against the Nuggets.

"That was incredible," Oladipo said. "You dream about stuff like that. But I've got a lot of work to do in order to get there."

Off to Oladipo's left, another voice interrupted.

"It's looking pretty good," Turner said.

Still later, Turner — who most assumed would be this season's leading scorer but ranks third — was talking about Oladipo's recent five-game run, in which he's averaged 31.8 points on 54 percent shooting.

"That's what I like about this lineup, anybody can get going at any time," Turner said. "Out there on the floor it's like, 'Oh, there he goes again.' I'm happy for Vic."

Off to Turner's right, another voice was heard.

"Thanks, Bro," Oladipo said.

It's early, and this team has yet to accomplish anything meaningful. But as much as any team in franchise history, it looks like it's on the way. Sounds like it, too.

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