Pacers Trying to Stay Intact Before the Break

The Pacers begin Spring Break on Thursday, which makes Wednesday's game at Brooklyn like the last day of school before the break.

You remember how those used to go, right? Most kids were distracted and restless, many had checked out mentally and some didn't even show, physically. That will be the challenge for the Pacers, who have no choice but to be in Barclays Center for the game but do have the self-assigned option of having their minds elsewhere.

Nate McMillan played in the NBA for 12 seasons and has been a head coach or assistant for 17 more, so he knows how these games can go.

"Some guys are already on vacation," he said following Tuesday's practice at St. Vincent Center (which he said he was a good one). "All coaches are trying to prevent that from happening."

McMillan has been preaching for a week now about the need to stay focused on the business at hand through the end of Wednesday's game, but is confident this group won't fall prey to the same malady that affects many teams — including some of the recent Pacers collections.

Their "overachieving" performance to date suggests a professional level of maturity and mindset. Their tenuous position in the Eastern Conference standings — sixth, with everything from third to ninth still in play — recommends that they take every game seriously. Their impressive camaraderie should help them do so.

It hasn't always been that way. The Pacers have lost the final game before the break in three of the previous four seasons, sometimes in embarrassing fashion, as follows.

Last season's game provides a neat summary of the difference between the Pacers' then and now. That team took a six-game losing streak and a 29-28 record into the break. A victory in Brooklyn would give this team a three-game winning streak, seven victories in their previous nine games, and a 33-25 record.

Last season, the Pacers looked like a team limping toward the break. They apparently felt like one, too, given Paul George's comments after the loss to Washington.

"I think we're exhausted," said George, who hit 6-of-18 shots in the game. "We've been drained."

Asked what the team needed to revive itself, George gave a prescient answer:

"Just a spark, man, just a spark," he said. "More energy. More excitement. It's like a cloud over us right now. Like a dark cloud. We're coming to the arena not expecting great things."

Asked if he was the one to bring that spark, George winced.

"Man, I can't do everything; I can't do everything," he said. "I'm going to put everything I have into it, but collectively we've got to have the whole team change this environment and make it live in here again."

As it turned out, Lance Stephenson brought that spark, but not until just six games remained in the regular season. The Pacers won their last five to make the playoffs and were competitive with Cleveland throughout the Cavs' first-round sweep. Had Stephenson become available earlier in the season, that team might have come close to meeting preseason expectations. But the game before the break revealed their fractures.

The previous season brought an even worse performance from the Pacers. Their 117-95 homecourt loss to Charlotte was a textbook example of a team that had opted for an early checkout before the break, as they were outscored 35-18 in the second quarter, and never recovered.

"They just took it to us," George said after that game. "They wanted to get this win more than we wanted to get this win."

McMillan and the players aren't expecting a collapse — as if any team would. Their challenge should be helped by the fact the Nets have lost 10 of their previous 11 games, and likely need a vacation more than the Pacers. Still, the Pacers look forward to getting some time off. Although NBA teams have played roughly the same number of games before the break as in past seasons, they have been working longer. The season began more than a week earlier as part of the league's effort to reduce the number of back-to-back games. The exhibition schedule was reduced by half, but those games are not as intense as the real ones.

Some players are in greater need of time off than others.

Lance Stephenson says he's "a little sore." Domantas Sabonis has a bruised right thumb that keeps getting hit in games. Cory Joseph, who has started at point guard the past three games in place of Darren Collison, has talked of feeling fatigued.

On the other hand, Victor Oladipo, who will play in Sunday's All-Star game, says he's feeling just fine, although he would never admit to anything else. He's had the "benefit" of missing six games with injuries, which helps. Myles Turner has missed 16 games, and is relatively fresh. Bojan Bogdanovic, who was given a day off practice two weeks ago to take a mental break, has played better recently and says he feels fine.

The Pacers will go their separate ways over the break. Oladipo and Sabonis will be going to Los Angeles to participate in All-Star Weekend. McMillan will go back to his native North Carolina to unwind. Bogdanovic will stay in New York and then go somewhere to find a beach. Stephenson will stay in New York, visit his old neighborhood, and play pickup games at his old high school gymnasium.

When they regather, they'll have 24 more games to prove themselves as a playoff team and recapture their vibe. Veteran center and locker room chemistry master Al Jefferson likes their odds, because of the internal qualities that have got them to this point.

"I've never seen a group of guys like this who are so happy for one another," Jefferson said. "You have to be happy for your teammates but when guys break out and have success, this whole locker room is so hyped for them. You've been around as long as I have, young guys don't learn that right way. This team is like that. I knew right away this team would have a lot of success because we all have the same goals."

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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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