Pacers Know What's At Stake Against Philly

January 12, 2020 - The Pacers and 76ers are next to each other in the standings and each have a win in the season series. Monday's game could go a long way in determining playoff seeding.

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Pacers Know What's At Stake Against Philly

January 12, 2020 - The Pacers and 76ers are next to each other in the standings and each have a win in the season series. Monday's game could go a long way in determining playoff seeding.
Jan 12, 2020  |  01:04

Too Many Options a Good Problem for McMillan, Pacers

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

If anything, the weekend games in Chicago reiterated the Pacers' depth and, indirectly, their dilemma. Not that coach Nate McMillan necessarily sees it as a problem, but it can be for the players.

"You can't play 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 guys," McMillan said following Sunday's practice at St. Vincent Center.

No, you can't, which is why McMillan has grown a little tired of answering questions about the details of the depth dumped on him by the Pacers' front office – a multitude of options that leaves first-round draft picks out of the playing rotation, has third-strong point guards in the starting lineup and has players normally out of the rotation making contributions when suddenly called upon to start.

The Pacers won at Chicago on Friday without Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, whom many would regard as their three best players. They did so partly because JaKarr Sampson made solid contributions as a starter with four powerful dunks and five rebounds and rookie Goga Bitadze did the same in 15 minutes off the bench with four points and three rebounds.

That game was an obvious indicator of the talent at McMillan's disposal, as was the game the following night in the Chicago suburbs. Bitadze and Alize Johnson stayed behind to play for the G League Fort Wayne Mad Ants against the Windy City Bulls and put up exceptional performances. Bitadze finished with 25 points and 20 rebounds along with eight blocked shots while Johnson had 22 points and 20 rebounds.

Sampson could be back in the starting lineup for the Pacers on Monday when they play Philadelphia at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Bitadze could get meaningful minutes off the bench. Sabonis could miss a second consecutive game with a sore left knee, creating an opportunity at the four position. Brogdon could miss a sixth consecutive game if the strep throat that kept him out of Saturday's game persists. Sabonis did not participate in Sunday's light workout. Brogdon did, but in limited fashion and in sweat pants.

If they can't go on Monday, McMillan likely will start the same lineup as on Saturday, with Sampson next to center Myles Turner along the frontline and T.J. McConnell opening at point guard. McConnell, who has played behind Brogdon and Aaron Holiday much of the season, got the call on Saturday to get the team off to a better start and fulfilled that role, although Holiday closed the game with one of his better performances of the season.

Sampson has about an equal chance of starting and not playing at all against the 76ers, depending on Sabonis' status. McMillan likes him paired with Turner in the starting lineup because he brings defense and rebounding, but if Turner and Sabonis both start, Sampson's assets aren't as needed.

It's been that way all season. Sampson has started eight games, played off the bench five times and has not played at all in 26 games. McMillan said Sampson wasn't expecting to play against the Bulls on Saturday until 15-20 minutes before the game, when it was learned Sabonis could not go.

Sampson made the quick adjustment to the starting lineup and did exactly what he was supposed to do: Bring energy, play defense, grab some rebounds and score when the opportunity was there.

"I hold myself accountable to be a professional," he said on Sunday. "At any given time, your name can be called. I just came in and did my job.

"At the end of the day it's a job and a business and that's the mindset you have to have when your name is called."

The Pacers' roulette wheel rotation can get pretty confusing if you're following at home, but it has been spun by injuries. Oladipo has missed all 39 games, Brogdon has missed nine (and most of two others when he was injured in the first quarter), Turner has missed eight and Sabonis has missed three. Because of that, and because of all the viable options to McMillan to match up to opponents, 12 players have started at least one game this season.

McMillan doesn't get caught up in the emotions of it; he simply starts and plays whomever he thinks can help win the game at hand. He'll talk to players who aren't playing to make sure their attitude is good and to remind them their opportunity could come at any moment, but he's not in the business of feeling sorry for those who aren't playing - just like nobody is going to feel sorry for him when the team loses.

McMillan likes his depth. But he also likes sticking with a nine-man rotation, although he went with 10 against the Bulls on Friday. That means he doesn't believe those who aren't playing can't play.

"T.J. (Leaf) Goga, Aaron, McConnell, Alize … they all have done some good things," he said.

Someone brought up Naz Mitrou-Long, a player with a two-way contract who has spent most of the season in Fort Wayne but performed well when forced into action in a game at Brooklyn earlier in the season.

"Naz," McMillan agreed.

"You can't get caught up in that."

Someone started to ask a question about finding minutes for Edmond Sumner, who also has played well lately.

"Edmond," McMillan said, adding him to the list.

"I don't have to find minutes for anyone. We do what we've been doing, try to put a group of five out there that has the best opportunity to win.

"There's only so many minutes, guys," McMillan added.

Leaf might represent the result of the congestion on the Pacers' bench more than anyone. A first-round draft pick in 2017, he hasn't played in the past five games and hasn't played more than 10 minutes since the blowout loss to Milwaukee on Nov. 16. But the only time he played more than 20 minutes this season, against Chicago on Nov. 3, he finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds in 22 minutes.

Leaf's limited role has led some people to believe he can't play, that he's a bust with no future. It also raises questions about the mental state of Leaf and others who have proven they can play but often don't. McMillan shrugged as he looked over at Leaf participating in a post-practice four-on-four game that included Oladipo.

"I can't worry about what folks are saying," he said. "He looks pretty upbeat over there. He's not pouting, continues to come in and work. Like the rest of these guys, you've got to keep yourself ready for the opportunity.

"Tell those folks, they're working."

The G League keeps players working and keeps the rust from settling in during the NBA season that permits precious few opportunities for serious practice time. Bitadze has played in three games for the Mad Ants, averaging 21.7 points, 15.7 rebounds and 4.7 blocks. Johnson has played in seven games, averaging 23.3 points, 15.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Sampson made the trek to Fort Wayne for one game, in which he scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 29 minutes. Sumner played in one game as well, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Some players with NBA contracts, particularly those who were first-round draft picks, balk at playing in the G League. Bitadze isn't one of them however.

"I just go out and play 100 percent," he said. "It's not for me to say, 'Oh, no, I've got to go play in the G League.' That helps me. I have to go there as much as they want me. If I want to play, I'll ask them to play because it's nice for me."

Bitadze and Johnson were driven back to Indianapolis after the game, arriving about 3 a.m. Bitadze said he got up at 9 to go to practice, but hadn't slept much anyway. Tired as he might have been on Sunday, he enjoyed playing those 44 minutes for the Mad Ants the previous night. There's a vast chasm between the overall talent of the NBA and G League, but the G League offers better competition than a major college schedule.

"They're all young players trying to come at you," Bitadze said. "They're trying to show what they've got, so it's hard to play up there. Game speed seems faster than the NBA. It's run-and-gun there, so it's really good for me."

Bitadze has played in 30 of the Pacers' 39 games, averaging 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds. He's averaged just 9.7 minutes, however, so his per-minute stats are more impressive. Particularly his blocked shots. He averages 3.1 over 36 minutes per game, best on the team, along with 8.9 rebounds.

He said he's not surprised by the humble beginnings of his NBA career; he knew playing time behind Sabonis and Turner would be limited. The only surprise has been the lack of practice opportunities to improve his skills.

"I was expecting a lot more practices, but I didn't (stop to think) you have games back to back and you have three or four games in five days. That's a different thing than in Europe."

He prefers it the NBA's way, even if some of the game action comes in a minor league.

"I like to play games," he said. "It's better to go out there and play official games than kill each other in practice."


Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

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.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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