The Pacers obviously miss Victor Oladipo on the court. His energy, defense, playmaking, and clutch shooting are readily identifiable qualities that will be difficult to replace. But, two games into his remainder-of-the-season absence, it seems they miss his mere presence more than anything.
"As you can see it's a quiet locker room right now," Thaddeus Young said following the Pacers' 132-100 loss to Golden State on Monday. "No music playing. The vibe is definitely off."
It was off in Saturday's three-point loss in Memphis to a team that had lost eight consecutive games and it was off in the loss to the Warriors before a sellout crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Warriors are dominant enough to throw off anyone's vibe, especially now that they've hit full stride and won 11 consecutive games, but the Pacers clearly have adjustments to make — physically and psychologically — if they are to maintain their top-four pace in the Eastern Conference.
Not only did they have to play the NBA's best and hottest team without their best player, Oladipo, they were without Oladipo's backup, Tyreke Evans, who missed the game with a sore lower back. That resulted in virtual rookie Edmond Sumner getting his first NBA start and bona-fide rookie Aaron Holiday playing out of position to back up Sumner.
Not an ideal scenario against the worst NBA team, and certainly not desirable against the best.
Sumner's most recent game action had come last Wednesday in Erie, Pa. for the G League Fort Wayne Mad Ants against the Erie Bayhawks. Sumner was brilliant in that game, scoring 33 points while hitting 5-of-8 3-pointers and adding five assists with no turnovers. But this was a different deal entirely. He had played 34 total NBA minutes this season and two last season, never in non-garbage time.
Was he nervous?
"Once the ball gets thrown up it's back to basketball," he said. "It's on a higher level. First career start. Defending champions."
Sumner paused to allow himself a slight chuckle.
"That's crazy," he continued. "But just have to go out there and play."
Sumner played commendable defense — most of Thompson's 16 points came against other defenders — but he hit just 1-of-10 field goal attempts. His first shot, a 3-pointer from the left corner 42 seconds after tipoff, failed to reach the rim.
For neophytes such as Sumner, progress is measured in smaller steps. He took pride in the fact he didn't stop shooting. He attempted two more 3-pointers. He missed them, but he didn't shrink from the moment.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
For now that's what the Pacers are going to have to be about, because plenty of challenging moments are coming. They couldn't have fairly been expected to go toe-to-toe with a team that appears superior to the one that won the NBA championship last season, but they were hoping to be more competitive. They were within three points of the Warriors midway through the first quarter, but trailed by as many as 21 late in the period. They played them evenly over the second and third quarters, then fell further behind down the stretch.
The Warriors put on the kind of show all those fans wearing their garb were hoping to see, particularly Stephen Curry. He scored 26 points in 27 minutes while hitting 10-of-13 shots, and threw in one of his classic gasp-inspiring 30-footers at the halftime buzzer just for fun. DeMarcus Cousins, who provides the dominating center Golden State has lacked in the past, bullied his way to 22 points.
The victory completed an unblemished five-game road trip for the Warriors. It began with five days in Los Angeles, the City of Distractions, where they easily defeated the Clippers and Lakers. It continued in Washington where they took a side trip to meet with former President Barack Obama, moved on to Boston, where they pulled out a four-point victory over one of the anticipated powers of the East. Any hopes of them being too fatigued or disinterested to bring their best to The Fieldhouse on Monday were dashed by their 21-point blitz over the final 4:51 of the first period.
Afterward, Curry stood in a hallway and talked of the need to get better, focus on the details that bring championships, but acknowledged they had "played pretty good basketball" over the course of the trip.
They also put on a tutorial for the Pacers, as they do for most teams.
"They're a championship team," Young said. "They have a lot of guys who don't just score the ball well, they move individually and they play as a cohesive unit. They're always a unified group. One of the things we can take from them is how they cut and how they move off the ball.
"A lot of people get caught up on those Steph Curry threes and those Klay Thompson threes, but they get those threes because of their ball movement. If you want to take anything, you take away the things they do as far as the ball movement and cutting of the ball and getting guys open."
The Pacers won without Oladipo earlier in the season with ball movement and balance, but it feels different this time. Back in November and early November, when a sore knee kept him out of 11 games and essentially a 12th, he was around the team nearly all the time, and they knew he was coming back before too long. Now he's going to begin his recovery from Monday's surgery out of state, won't play again this season and won't be with the team for the foreseeable future.
Evans' status for Wednesday's game in Washington is uncertain. Regardless, the Pacers are going to have to find a new chemistry and a new personality.
"We've basically got to go back to the drawing board with our group, with so many new players and so many new roles," coach Nate McMillan said. "It's going to take us some time to get into a rhythm. We've got to just keep working and stay together, and we'll work our way out of this."
Sumner and Aaron Holiday, who finished with 12 points and hit 4-of-5 three-pointers, likely will have to make consistent contributions for that to happen. So, perhaps, will TJ Leaf, who hit 4-of-7 shots and scored eight points.
Young seemed to have that in mind during a timeout with 4:50 left in Monday's game, when the Pacers trailed by 24 points. While players milled around waiting for play to resume, he offered a few words to Sumner, and then to Leaf.
His message to them: "Just continue to play. Continue to work on your game. Continue to execute and make sure you play hard through the last buzzer."
That's a start. The Pacers now face a four-game road trip that takes them through Washington, Orlando, Miami, and New Orleans. None of those teams have a winning record, but all are capable of beating a team undergoing a midseason reconstruction. The trip looms large for the Pacers, a crucial stretch of their season.
"The tide will turn," Young said. "We understand what we need to do as a team. We understand the level we need to play at."
Now they have to try to do it with new contributors. And their old vibe.
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