Starters Improving, Reserves on the Verge of it

The starting lineup that has brought renewal to the Pacers' season has been together long enough now to merit analysis. Beyond the numbers, however, the best thing about it might be the room it seems to have for improvement.

The quintet of Monta Ellis, Paul George, George Hill, Ian Mahinmi and Myles Turner has started eight games now. The Pacers have won six of those, with the two losses coming in an all-around collapse against Charlotte in the last game before the All-Star break and an overtime loss at Miami that could have been avoided by one more free throw by Ellis at the end of regulation – a game in which the Pacers jumped to a 16-2 lead.

In the 178 minutes, 58 seconds the unit has played together (hey, the stat geeks are precise these days), it has outscored opponents by 53 points. Extrapolated to 100 possessions to negate the impact of pace of play, it has allowed just 85.2 points while scoring 102.2, and has committed just 12.7 turnovers. (The NBA average this season is 95.6 possessions per game.)

In sum, it's been average offensively but outstanding defensively because of the inside presence Mahinmi and Turner bring – and should do nothing but improve as the players become more familiar with one another and Turner, the 19-year-old rookie, gains experience. It's still only the third-most common lineup the team has used this season, well behind the small-ball lineup that opened the season consisting of Ellis, George, Hill, Mahinmi and C.J. Miles.

Replacing the 6-6 Miles with the 6-11 Myles clearly has made a difference.

"Having a two-way player in Myles Turner in that group is just the complement (the starters) needed," coach Frank Vogel said Thursday. "Monta and Paul trying to play off each other without a true power forward was a challenge at times. Myles kind of completes that puzzle. And having two great shot-blockers in there has made it difficult to score on us in the paint."

That was evident in the final two minutes of Wednesday's win over New York. With the Pacers protecting a three-point lead, a double-teaming Mahinmi was credited with a block of Carmelo Anthony's attempted shot out of a post-up against George, although it could just as easily been ruled a deflection.

Turner later grabbed the game's biggest rebound, a grown-man grab in heavy traffic with 2.9 seconds left after Kristaps Porzingis missed a 3-pointer.

"Defensively, we get stops and rebounds," George said. "That was a big factor the first half of the season, not being able to get rebounds. We were faster, but they were bigger. Myles gives us that presence.

"Having two shot-blockers out there is something I've never been part of. Roy (Hibbert) wasn't really a shot-blocker, he was more of a rim protector. And (David West) was just a tough guy. That's been the best thing, having shot-blockers."

Turner's perimeter shooting touch has meant the Pacers still get a lot of what Miles had to offer, a defense-stretching scoring threat that opened the lane for drives from the guards and wings. In the eight games with the current starting lineup, Turner has averaged 16 points on 55 percent shooting. He's hit just one 3-pointer – a big one at Oklahoma City – but looks to be a legitimate threat in the future, and has been a dependable mid-range shooter.

"You still get that stretch offensively, with Myles being able to spread the floor," said George, who took advantage of the spacing to dominate the fourth quarter with drives to the basket against the Knicks. "We still get that small-ball spacing, but we're still big. That's been enjoyable with this group."

The challenge for the bigger lineup will be defending the 3-point line and transition defense. The Pacers entered Wednesday's game the NBA's third-best defender of 3-pointers, but allowed the Knicks to hit 13-of-26. The Knicks only scored five fast-break points, but aren't built for running.

"That's definitely an area of improvement," George said. "We're trying to bring the young fella (Turner) along with rotations. Given a game like last night, New York was getting so many threes, that's where his growth is going to be. When he gets better at that, we'll be better defensively."

Further improvement should come from the return of Rodney Stuckey, which could happen as early as Friday's game against Charlotte. Stuckey has been out since Jan. 12 with a sprain and bone bruise in his right foot, but participated in a complete practice for the first time on Thursday and reported no problems. He'll be evaluated again on Friday, at which point his status will be determined.

Stuckey will bring scoring punch to the second unit, not to mention experience and athleticism. He's averaged 9.8 points in the 33 games he played, some of them while hurt. He averaged 12.6 points last season while hitting a career-high 39 percent from the 3-point line.

"Just bring energy, defensively and offensively," he said of his role when he returns. "Try to get to the free throw line. Just come in and compete."

Patience likely will be required, though. He'll need time to work himself back into game condition.

"Being out five weeks, man, it's tough," he said.

Miles' return from a calf strain should come soon as well. He's been erratic this season, but has eight games of 20 or more points. He scored a season-high 32 at Washington in November and had 27 at Brooklyn on Feb. 3. He closed strong last season, averaging 19.4 points over the final 11 games, hitting 47 percent of his 3-pointers.

Adding two rested and recovered veterans with a proven ability to score 30-plus points to the bench can't hurt. Neither can letting a starting unit still getting to know one another continue to play together and build chemistry. You don't have to be a stats geek to figure that one out.

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