With These Pacers, You Just Never Know

On this, perhaps the least predictable team in the Pacers' franchise history, you just never know.

Some games, Victor Oladipo might grab a career-high 15 rebounds. Other games, Domantas Sabonis might com off the bench for a double-double in 24 minutes. Still other games, Myles Turner might break out of a slump with 25 points. And then there are games Darren Collison's knee feels better and he suddenly scores 30.

But what happened Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, in a 107-104 victory over Toronto, stretched the randomness of even this new box of chocolates. You had Lance Stephenson, given a reprieve by Oladipo's strained knee, hitting all three 3-point shots in the fourth quarter, only to be matched in overall impact by Bojan Bogdanovic, who defended the Raptors' leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, into the neighborhood of oblivion.

"We just don't know what we have with this group," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. "They continue to play hard, they continue to show growth. That's what the game is all about."

Growth for the Pacers means overcoming a Raptors team that entered the game tied for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, and doing it without playing particularly well. The Pacers hit just 41 percent of their field goal attempts through the first three quarters, and then threatened to undo all their noble efforts and good intentions in the fourth by committing nine turnovers, two more than they had committed through the first three.

They're now 11-8, winners of five consecutive games, and just 1.5 games back of second place in the conference. The first-place team, 17-3 Boston, comes to The Fieldhouse on Saturday for the Pacers' biggest challenge yet. Whatever happens, they are well ahead of all preseason projections — on pace to win 47 or 48 games in what McMillan acknowledges is a rebuilding season.

"We have to see what we have," McMillan had said before Friday's game. "We're still trying to establish a style of play. This is the season for learning and to develop some guys."

Bogdanovic's defense is perhaps the most unexpected development. DeRozan entered the game averaging 24.8 points with a .482 field goal percentage, but managed just 13 on 6-of-16 shooting. And his final two field goals came on layups when other Pacers were (theoretically) defending him. Bogdanovic fought through screens, stayed in front of DeRozan, kept his hands up and forced DeRozan to try to live on a diet of defended turnaround jump shots and other unsavory options.

"He had some tough looks," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said.

Perhaps the most impressive element of Bogdanovic's defense was that DeRozan, who averages eight free throw attempts per game, got just two, those coming after a questionable foul call on Bogdanovic in the first quarter. He hit just one.

"I just tried to make him take tough shots with my hands up," said Bogdanovic, who also scored 19 points. "He's a pump-fake player, so I tried not to put him on the free throw line. I just tried to make him take tough shots."

Bogdanovic's defense has been one of the biggest surprises of the Pacers' season, although an increasingly consistent one. From this point forward, it shouldn't surprise anyone. McMillan isn't ready to declare his free agent forward a "stopper," but has shown faith in his defense since Bogdanovic did a credible job defending LeBron James in Cleveland on Nov. 1.

"I thought it was probably one of the better jobs I've seen on DeRozan since I've been here," said McMillan, who joined the Pacers as an assistant coach five years ago.

"We've had some really good defenders in a Pacers uniform the last four or five years. You don't stop guys like that, you try to make them work."

Bogdanovic not only made DeRozan work, he made him miss. This, from a player listed as the fifth-worst defender at his position last season by Bleacher Report and the league's worst defender in another evaluation.

"Bogdanovic is a comically bad defensive player overall," that article declared.

Bogdanovic isn't playing for laughs. He worked to improve his foot speed over the summer by strengthening his legs, and simply put more focus on his defense. Asked if he's significantly better as a defender than last season, Bogdanovic was blunt.

"That's my goal for the season, but also I played in Brooklyn, which was one of the worst teams in the league, so who was the good defender on that team? I don't take (his defensive reputation) that serious."

Lance Stephenson, meanwhile, doesn't take his 3-point shooting reputation that seriously. He entered the game having hit just 7-of-33 attempts, 21 percent. But there he was Friday, hitting all four of his attempts to lift his season rate of accuracy to 30 percent. He hit three in the fourth quarter, two on consecutive possessions that extended the Pacers' lead to 11 with 4:08 left.

He hit another well-defended attempt after the offense stalled and he was isolated on the left wing. That one gave the Pacers a six-point lead with 1:29 left.

"I think I'm a 3-point shooter," Stephenson said when it was suggested otherwise after the game. "My confidence is up. I'm a shot-maker when it counts."

The Pacers were fortunate that Stephenson was even in the game. Oladipo had strained his right knee after being called for a charging foul with 6:48 left, after Collison set him up by passing him the ball at the wrong time in the wrong place on a fastbreak. Oladipo left the playing area with trainer Josh Corbeil for a few minutes and retreated to a back hallway to test his knee. Still testing it by bouncing up and down on it and running in place, he said he was ready to re-enter the game during a timeout with 5:13 remaining, but his sales pitch rang hollow with McMillan.

Only for that reason was Stephenson able to stay in the game to do his damage.

"Victor's knee was bothering him, and he didn't really sound confident about going back in there, and Lance was playing well," McMillan said. "I said, 'Look, we're going to finish with Lance and sit you out.' Lance did a good job of finishing."

And so it goes for the Pacers. They're rolling, without knowing from one game to the next who's going to propel them. And that's just how they like it.

"That's just being ready," Stephenson said. "I feel like everybody on this team has something to prove and they just want to win. Nobody's being selfish. We're just playing team basketball, and that's when the games become easy for everybody."

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