Myles Turner practiced with the Pacers on Sunday. If all goes well in Monday's workout, he'll likely play when the Pacers meet Phoenix at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday.
That qualifies as more than a good thing for a team trying to keep pace with the leaders in the Eastern Conference. It's absolutely essential, as the results during Turner's absences this season have proved.
The Pacers are 2-3 when playing without Turner this season. Although the caliber of the opponent obviously factors into the record, the link between the record and his status can't be denied – not just in the result, but in the margin of the result. They lost at home to San Antonio by 11 points on Nov. 23, and then at Toronto by 16 and Boston by 27 on the recent road trip. Their victories have come over Cleveland and New York, two of the weakest teams in the NBA.
It appears obvious, then, that the Pacers can't beat winning teams with any degree of consistency without Turner, who is recovering from nerve damage in his right shoulder of uncertain origin. His slow start to the season caused some fans to consider him expendable, not to mention inferior to his backup, Domantas Sabonis. A reassessment seems in order now, although not from those drawing a paycheck from the organization.
"I think everybody knows how important I am to this team – as far as my teammates are concerned," Turner said following Sunday's practice at St. Vincent Center. "Fans can think what they want, but as far as everybody in the organization, they know what I bring to the table."
Turner said this without a trace of bitterness and in direct response to a question. But, he could be forgiven for showing a bit of how-do-you-like-me-now bravado. Just as everyone was reminded how important Victor Oladipo was to the Pacers last season when they went 0-7 without him, Turner's never looked better than during his temporary departure.
The value of his shot-blocking is easily measured, but there's a ripple effect from his mere presence that runs through the entire defense.
He leads the NBA with an average of 2.78 blocks per game, .15 ahead of New Orleans' Anthony Davis. He has 103 blocks for the season in 1,031 minutes of playing time. His teammates have combined for 106 blocks in 9,074 minutes.
Sabonis, a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate, is an equally capable scorer and a superior rebounder than Turner, but can't begin to make up for the rim protection Turner provides. In the five games Sabonis has started for Turner this season, he's averaged 18.4 points and 11.6 rebounds – but hasn't blocked a single shot.
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Sabonis has just 20 blocked shots all season, second on the team. He lacks the quickness, length and instinct that make Turner effective around the rim, factors that contributed to Sabonis slipping to 11th in the 2016 draft. He's not alone, though. The Pacers had just seven total blocked shots in the games Turner has missed. Five of those came from Kyle O'Quinn and the others from point guards Darren Collison and Aaron Holiday.
Turner was doing much more than blocking shots, discouraging opponents from driving to the rim and stepping out to defend pick-and-rolls before his injury, however. He played the best of his career in his 15 games in December, including the one against Atlanta on New Year's Eve when he broke his nose. He averaged 15.7 points while hitting 53.5 percent of his field goals and 50 percent of his 3-pointers that month, as well as 9.4 rebounds and 3.2 blocks.
The challenge now is to regain that level of play when he returns.
"You get in a rhythm," he said. "Now I have to come back and try to get in another rhythm. It's easier to flow in a rhythm than to find it."
The Pacers allowed an average of 106.4 points in December and finished the month as the NBA's top-ranked defense. They have allowed 118.6 points in January, slipping to third in overall defense. Turner knows he could have helped, but doesn't take sole "credit" for the slide. The other factors are one of the emphases of coach Nate McMillan heading into the Pacers' five-game home stand.
McMillan acknowledged recent hot-shooting opponents who hit plenty of well-defended attempts. Five consecutive opponents before New York on Friday shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range. McMillan, though, has seen plenty of defensive slippages that can be corrected – staying in front of the ballhandler, applying more pressure on the perimeter, recognizing the status of the shot clock, those sort of things.
As much as he will help, Turner's return won't automatically solve all defensive issues.
"We can be better, obviously," Victor Oladipo said. "We were better in New York, but when he comes back we still have to be better at keeping the ball in front of us, the rotations being there, playing hard … we can always improve.
"Just got to play hard and keep doing what you can to slow them down and get stops."
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