The Pacers scored 132 and 130 points in their two games in India. What that means, exactly, is open to interpretation at this early stage.
Nobody was celebrating those gaudy outputs after the team returned to practice at St. Vincent Center on Tuesday. Coach Nate McMillan was quick to point out the first game went into overtime. Point guard Malcolm Brogdon was equally quick to mention that Sacramento, like the Pacers, is a long way from establishing itself defensively. And there’s the obvious fact that the first two preseason games can’t be viewed as a certain forecast of the regular season.
Then again, it’s not that easy to score 130 points, even in the preseason. The Pacers averaged 103 points in their four preseason games last year when they had the same starting lineup as the previous season. But with only one returning starter from last season they displayed impressive unselfishness and ball movement in India. That could prove meaningful.
“We have a team that can really score the ball and has a lot of weapons offensively,” Brogdon said, before quickly tossing out the caveat of the Kings’ in-the-works defense.
Brogdon was a trend-setter for the offense in both games in India. He finished the first with 15 points, 14 assists and two turnovers. He went scoreless in 19 minutes in the second game but had five assists and just one turnover. He didn’t appear bothered in the least by his lack of scoring and was careful to pass out credit for his assist totals.
“That’s a credit to me passing the ball and doing something people don’t think I can do, but it’s also a credit to my teammates being able to catch the ball and being able to finish those plays, being in the right spots, and then my coach putting us all in the right spots,” he said.
Although rebounding missed shots will boost the offense, Turner believes Brogdon will do so as well.
“We’re still figuring ourselves out,” Turner said. “We want to play at a higher pace. Having Malcolm at the head of the snake, we can play that way because he’s able to make those reads. We have the personnel to do it now.”
McMillan has set a goal of averaging at least 110 points this season. That wouldn’t require much improvement as last season’s team averaged 108, which ranked 22nd in the NBA. The off-season signings and trades were focused on improving the offense, so the returns from India were at least encouraging for McMillan.
The Pacers ranked 23rd in pace of play last season, so more transition scoring will be necessary. That requires forcing missed shots and rebounding them, and this season’s starting lineup appears to be more capable of that. The Pacers outrebounded Sacramento by 17 in the first game and by 16 in the second.
“We’re still talking about (playing at a faster tempo),” McMillan said. “That’s something they’re going to have to establish that they can do. Push the ball, get it out and getting some quick attacks.
“It’s going to be about getting stops and creating easy opportunities. I thought we were able to do that in the second half of each game.”
A crowded pool in the deep end
Depth is a good thing, but sometimes too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. Having too many capable players, for example, threatens team chemistry if one or more of those players fails to accept a lesser role than he believes he deserves.
McMillan might have to address that situation, based on what transpired in India. Based on early returns, it’s not difficult to see he could wind up with the “good problem” of having a deep bench, which every every coach prefers over not having enough capable players.
Five of the Pacer reserves scored in double figures in the second game in India when each of the starters played just 19 minutes. The group of 10-plus scorers didn’t include two of the more established backups, Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell. That group also didn’t include two injured players expected to be in the playing rotation, former first-round draft picks Goga Bitadze and T.J. Leaf. And then there’s the fact Victor Oladipo’s return will drop Jeremy Lamb into a reserve role, adding further congestion to the bench.
It has the makings of an uncomfortable traffic jam. There’s nothing McMillan can do about it now, though.
“I always think things like that plays itself out,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who can compete.”
The potentially exceptional depth played out in practice scrimmages on Tuesday, when the second unit defeated the starters and then the third unit defeated the second unit. The third unit included McConnell and Justin Holiday, who help put the Pacers’ depth in perspective.
McConnell started 72 games in his four seasons in Philadelphia. He once had a triple-double off the bench, along with six steals, against New York and had 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a playoff game against Boston in 2018.
Holiday, at 30 the Pacers’ oldest player, started 75 of the 82 combined games he played for Chicago and Memphis last season. He averaged 11.6 points for the Bulls and had a 30-point game for the Grizzlies.
With so many new faces, the 15-hour plane ride to India and structured environment upon arriving figured to provide an opportunity for the Pacers to become better acquainted with one another. By all accounts, the trip succeeded in that regard.
Brogdon considered bonding to be the primary takeaway from the journey,
“A lot of what drives really great teams is their relationships off the court,” he said. “We were able to develop that.”
“Just hanging out was important,” Turner said. “It’s one thing to do that in Indiana, it’s another thing to do it in another country where you have to stick together.”
Turner’s contribution was to initiate a game of Heads Up on the flight, a game similar to charades in which players try to guess a word, person or place by the clues given to them.
“I got Nate to do it,” he said. “It was pretty funny.”
McMillan said he learned from the Pacers’ trip to London for a regular season game in January of 2017. Then, he let the jet-lagged players go to sleep upon arriving.
“We got off plane and everybody looked cross-eyed, so I cancelled practice and we went to sleep and we got off of our (regular schedule),” he said. “This time we didn’t do that. Right when we got there we went to practice (after going to the hotel and changing). People were looking at us like we were crazy, but we had an hour-and-a-half practice and after that had a dinner, so we kept the guys up and allowed them to fall asleep a little later. I thought that really helped us.”
Upon arriving in Indianapolis Sunday morning about 9:30 a.m., McMillan told the players not to take more than a 30-minute nap to stay on their familiar schedule. They were given Sunday and Monday off, and most were beginning to adjust to the drastic time zone change by Tuesday.
Turner said he went to bed at 9 p.m. on Monday, then woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. He arrived at St. Vincent Center at 7 a.m., well before the start of practice.
Although disruptive to the flow of training camp, McMillan said he had a good feeling about the trip.
“The guys did a great job of adapting to everything we asked them to do, as far as the game, travel, the events they had to go do,” he said. “Now that we’re back the focus is starting training camp all over again. We have something to build off of and slowly take those steps forward.”
Goga still a no-go
Bitadze was shooting after practice on Tuesday but is still being held out because of the sprained ankle he suffered in practice last week. He will not play in Friday’s game against Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse but it is hoped he can return for the final preseason game against Minnesota on Oct. 15.
Turner, who was injured during training camp heading into his rookie season and missed the season-opener, can relate to the rookie’s frustration.
“You start feeling like you’re letting the team down,” he said. “I’m just telling him to keep his head up. It’s hard to come in here in a new environment, especially in a new league. I just tell him to take his time. It’s easy to want to push it, but he’s going to be so valuable for the season that he needs to take his time and sit back and learn.”
Leaf didn’t play in India because of a strained quad muscle but was a full participant in practice on Tuesday.
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