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Indiana and Basketball: A Love Renewed

What has been the most exciting and fulfilling Pacers’ season in years has finally come to an end. What started with confusion, anger, and frustration towards a former player ended with young stars looking towards the future. Somehow losing the franchise’s arguably most talented player in history was a blessing in disguise.

A group primarily made of players who had been given up on or looked over their entire careers, just took one of the greatest players of all-time to the brink of elimination. But more than that, this group brought something back to the people of Indiana that had seemingly escaped this basketball-frenzy state. A sense of “togetherness” that captured the attention of Hoosiers from Elkhart to Evansville. A togetherness that is rare as in professional sports as the caliber of player that eliminated the Pacers in the first round.

What is this togetherness that has echoed the Pacers locker room since late last summer? It’s indescribable, but Hoosiers can sense it from a mile away. It’s a “we above me” mindset, it’s putting the team first and letting individual accolades come as they may. It’s about striving for something that seems out of reach, too good to be true, and not letting the challenge overtake the journey. It’s Victor Oladipo talking about this franchise as if it’s part of his immediate family. It’s Myles Turner’s resilience when the critics (me included) hounded him about his inconsistency. It’s the resolve of the entire team that seemed to always comeback from a double-digit deficit and at minimum make the game interesting. It’s Lance Stephenson’s… well I don’t know, but Lance was Born Ready and born to play basketball in Indiana. He loves the game like only a Hoosier can. It’s the moment when seemingly all 15 Pacer players rushed to help pick up Cory Joseph after driving to the hoop. Actually, let me correct that, it’s when Pacers fans across the state saw that moment and recognized it from memories past.

Cory Joseph
Photo by Pacers Sports and Entertainment

Maybe you recognized it from playing pick-up at your local park during a hot summer day in the Hoosier state. Maybe you recognized it from an Indiana high school sectional final during a brisk February night. Maybe you recognized it from your child’s YMCA league. But wherever you recognized it from, you knew one thing to be true, it was Indiana through and through.

For the past few years Pacer fans have had to do something that we are just not comfortable with. Balancing between supporting our hometown team that plays the sport that grew up here, while knowing that our star player, deep down, had no interest in being the hero we wanted and him to be. I did it, we all did it. We justified his attitude, made excuses for his comments to the press, and went above and beyond to make him feel wanted, and it wasn’t enough. We all remember that Woj notification last summer, “Paul George plans to leave Pacers”. The weeks of angst that followed and eventually the OKC trade that critics everywhere criticized until local police twitter accounts became pundits.

Close to a year later, no one is cracking jokes. The Pacers demanded everyone’s respect in their round one playoff series, they demanded your attention. Not because of their star power or their flashiness, but because of their togetherness. Their abilities and potential as a unit. The energy that connected Pacers fans with an energy and passion that had been dormant for too long. A rejuvenated spirit that only basketball can seem to bring to the state of Indiana. A sense of togetherness that goes beyond Oladipo and Turner, that moves through the young kids watching on TV or listening on the radio, that brings chills and goosebumps to those in the seats of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Yes, this Indiana team has started a new era of Pacers basketball, but more importantly, this group has brought basketball back to where it needs to be: front and center in the hearts and minds of Hoosiers everywhere.

Together, they have put the NBA on notice.

The Indiana Pacers are back, and so is basketball in Indiana.

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Can the Indiana Pacers rise above expectations one more time and dethrone LeBron James?

The Indiana Pacers were supposed to win 30 games this year. Every media outlet said so. Even Kevin Pritchard, the person who built this roster, admitted that their expectations were similarly low on the televised broadcast of Game 1 in this series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

They’ve been shocking everyone since the beginning of the season. Can they do it one more time in a road Game 7 against the best player in the world in LeBron James?

“We’re looking forward to it,” said Victor Oladipo of the deciding game after the Pacers blowout win in Game 6. “There’s nothing wrong with a little challenge. Obviously, it’s a big challenge ahead but we’re looking forward to the game.”

Oladipo has relished the challenges all season and has done it with impressive positivity. He’s become a franchise cornerstone, making his first All-Star team and setting career highs in basically every meaningful statistic, while claiming Indianapolis as his city and the fanbase has happily enjoyed the ride and embraced him completely.

Continue reading Can the Indiana Pacers rise above expectations one more time and dethrone LeBron James?

One moment captures the spirit and togetherness of the 2017-18 Indiana Pacers: This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words #5

In case this is your first time here, here’s the concept of This Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: I take an interesting picture from the history of the Indiana Pacers from ABA glory to the modern era and literally write 1,000 words (or more) about the photo.

While typically these columns take a more historical look at the Pacers (you can read about Reggie Miller, Roger Brown, the GQ Photoshoot curse, and the Day After the Brawl here), this current group just did something that will remain in Pacers fans memories for those at the game and watching from home for a long, long time.

Continue reading One moment captures the spirit and togetherness of the 2017-18 Indiana Pacers: This Picture is Worth a Thousand Words #5

By surpassing expectations, the Pacers earn the chance to stick together

Kevin Pritchard has had a long career working in NBA front offices, but this year’s deadline was different than the rest.

Six players came to the Pacers President of Basketball Operations and told him to keep this team together, which be said had never happened before in his basketball life. One player in particular made a strong plea for the group.

“We deserve to see this thing through,” said the mystery player according to Pritchard. “No one believed in us. No one thought we’d be any good. We deserve this.”

Continue reading By surpassing expectations, the Pacers earn the chance to stick together

The Indiana Pacers can’t stop making comebacks

The Indiana Pacers were down 34-12 at the end of the first quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

We all should have known at this point what would happen next.

The Pacers came back to defeat LeBron James and the Cavaliers behind a spark from Bankers Life Fieldhouse’s own court jester, Lance Stephenson, and yet another big shot from Victor Oladipo.

Continue reading The Indiana Pacers can’t stop making comebacks

New Year’s Resolutions for the Indiana Pacers: Part One

The Indiana Pacers have lost three straight games as Victor Oladipo has missed the last two and head into the New Year on a bit of a down note on what has otherwise been a terrific start to the season. Everybody has something to improve on, however, so in the spirit of New Year’s, here’s part one of resolutions for each of the Pacers for the remainder of the season.

Part two coming soon. (Now available)

Myles Turner: Use the fadeaway in the post sparingly when faced with a mismatch

Myles is the league-leading shot blocker and perhaps as a victim of high expectations hasn’t had the start to the season than many were hoping for. That being said, he’s averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks with a usage rate that is lower than his rookie season. He’s still just not a featured part of the offense on most nights but he’s putting up solid numbers with efficiency.

One area that he can definitely look to improve on is taking advantage of mismatches in the post. Too often, Turner tends to fade away when matched with a smaller player instead of taking advantage of his height. Here’s an example from the Mavs game with Harrison Barnes guarding him.

Turner has shown improvement in this area and has gone straight up more often of late as was the case with a couple of chances with Gary Harris on him in the post against the Denver Nuggets switching scheme, but he still has a tendency to fade more often than not.

This play is exactly how you want to see Turner take advantage of the mismatch. He doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be in the post all the time (or even most of the time) with that smooth jump shot, but the more he improves with someone smaller on him, the less likely teams will even consider switching on the pick and roll.

Turner’s also gone away from his no-dribble turnaround shot in the post, which has always been very effective since his rookie year. Even just going straight up is preferable to the fade as most of the smaller players won’t have any shot at blocking the high-release attempt and it has a higher chance of getting a foul call as well.

When I asked Turner about a one-leg, Dirk fadeaway that he used in the first game against the Bulls, he said, “I don’t want to always settle for that, but it’s a move that I know is tough to guard.”  So Turner knows that fading shouldn’t be something he does every time. Hopefully it starts to become like junk food at the top of the old food pyramid and is used sparingly.

The Dirk fadeaway in discussion was against Robin Lopez and not a smaller player.

Bojan Bogdanovic: Let yourself be fouled in late-game situations.

Please. Bogdanovic is shooting 84% from the free-throw line this season, but didn’t seem to want to be fouled in the closing seconds against Boston with that inexplicable high pass that was stolen by Terry Rozier. He almost dribbled into a turnover earlier this season in a similar scenario, but was given a foul call. If the Croatian Mercenary is going to play in the game’s final moments, he has to be willing to take those fouls.

Lance Stephenson: Keep the ball moving.

This has always been one of the things that I’ve disliked about Stephenson’s game even during his first tenure with Indiana. When the ball gets swung in his direction, he almost always ball fakes to no effect and gives the defense a chance to reset before making a decision. More often than not, the right play is just an immediate pass to the next man on the perimeter. Here’s an example of Stephenson doing this here, though Oladipo is still able to hit the 3-pointer as the Thunder don’t recover with the extra time Lance allowed them with the unnecessary fake.

Stephenson’s done far more good for the Pacers than bad this year, especially while being a big part of sparking some huge comebacks at home and getting the crowd amped up on a nightly basis, but a few quick swings per game would go a long way for the offense that sometimes doesn’t move the ball as much as it should.

Bonus resolution for Born Ready: Find his shooting stroke on the road. Before the game against the Chicago Bulls where Stephenson made two of his five 3-point attempts, he was shooting only 17% from deep. At Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, he’s shooting 38%.

Darren Collison: Don’t settle for mid-range attempts when the opponent switches on the pick and roll

Collison had a terrific offensive game against the Bulls, scoring 30 points on just 16 shot attempts. One area where the point guard could get more movement into the offense is any time the opposing team is switching in the pick and roll. Collison with a big man on him is reluctant to try a pass into the post over the taller player and instead most of the time ends up taking a contested mid-range attempt.

This happens so often that many times Turner doesn’t even look to post up when Collison is the ball handler in a switched pick and roll, because he knows what he’s likely to do more times than not.

The Pacers have also started having Turner post on the opposite side so Collison can swing it to the next guy on the perimeter and allow that man to make the post-entry pass that DC doesn’t make very often with the taller man defending him. You can see Turner going to post up on the opposite end on the previous video. The problem is that this allows the opposing team to switch the point guard off of Turner and get at least a slightly bigger player on him, which you can also see happen on the play above as well, and it takes more time to accomplish.

Collison is shooting well from the mid-range in certain areas, but oddly the area that he takes the most attempts in the mid-range is where he shoots by far the worst percentage. From the right elbow to the 3-point line, Collison is shooting a dismal 25.7% on 35 attempts.  In all other spots from 15-feet to the 3-point line, Collison is shooting a very good 53.6% on 56 attempts. If DC is going to take those type of shots, he has to start shooting more often in the areas that he’s been far more successful in. It’s very rare to see him take the opposing big to the rim as well, which could open up shots for others if he forces the defense to help as well.

TJ Leaf: Stay confident, grow in team defensive concepts.

Nate McMillan recently said that there aren’t really any expectations for TJ Leaf in his first season they just want him to get some experience on the court.

“We know that he can score the ball,” McMillan said about Leaf after practice. “We want to see him defend and continue to work on, certainly scoring, but really his first year is about just playing. There’s no pressure, no expectations, other than getting out there to play.”

The problem lately has been that Leaf hasn’t seen much or any playing time. Alex Poythress has gotten the most recent chance at the backup four minutes and when Glenn Robinson III comes back, it may likely be Bojan Bogdanovic playing some extra minutes as the backup power forward.

Leaf was a very confident rookie to start the season and will need to remain so even while he’s likely to sit the bench. Learning more about how to be a better defender will be the biggest thing he can do to help himself earn more minutes when his opportunities do come. Maybe sit next to Pacers defensive assistant coach Dan Burke on the bench every night.

McMillan praised his attitude recently when he went down to the G-League and played well.

“We do respect that,” McMillan said of Leaf’s mindset of wanting to do whatever is best for him. “Some guys feel they’re above (the G-League). His thing was, ‘It was good to play and get some minutes.’ … That’s what these guys love to do, is play basketball. That’s the purpose of sending him down there.”

Al Jefferson: Get a makeover.

Fortunately for the Pacers this season, Al Jefferson hasn’t been needed to play a whole lot. Hopefully that stays true in 2018. Turner and Oladipo both said that he was the one player on the team that most needed a makeover on the team. Big Al needs some new style.

Joe Young: Stay committed to the role of pesky, full-court defender

Young has embraced being the annoying, pesky defender that guards the opposing point guard the entire length of the court and it’s resulted in the occasional forced turnover. His minutes are likely to remain sporadic barring any injury and this is the easiest way for him to make an impact as he’s not going to be looked at as a primary scoring option when he plays.

Young has added a few points in the last two games (6 and 7 points respectively), but for him to continue playing in the league, he’ll have to up his defensive game. He’s got the right attitude and you know a guy that sleeps on the practice court is going to work hard.

Damien Wilkins: Don’t get your LaVar Ball on.

Old Man Wilkins just found out that he was having his third son as he was surprised by a gender reveal during the Pacers/Mavericks game.

Please, no. We don’t want or need another LaVar Ball. We didn’t need the first one.

These Indiana Pacers never quit

You’ve heard this story before.

The Indiana Pacers start off the game slow, let the opposing team get a lead around 20 points. Then, suddenly, usually sparked by something mildly insane that Lance Stephenson did or a pull-up 3-pointer by Victor Oladipo, the Pacers look like a different team and go on a huge run. The atmosphere is intense. The Banker’s Life Fieldhouse crowd is going crazy. They end up winning by late heroics from Oladipo as he points down to the court, letting everyone know, “This is My City. This is Our House.”

Tonight, the comeback came against the Brooklyn Nets as the Pacers improved to 19-14 on the season and 3-0 against the Nets as they sit in 4th in the Eastern Conference.

Per Pat Boylan, the Pacers have been down by double digits in six of their last seven home games and by at least 16 points in five of those seven home games. Despite this, the Pacers won four of the seven and had a chance in the fourth quarter at winning every one of them.

Continue reading These Indiana Pacers never quit

The Indiana Pacers chemistry is natural, but not accidental

Kevin Pritchard seems to have created something special in Indiana.

Perhaps not in terms of an abundance of talent on this Pacers team, but in a creation of chemistry that most teams can only dream about having after a few years growing together with little roster turnover. But this team brought in nine new players in a single off-season.

“This is the best locker room that I’ve ever been in,” said Myles Turner.  Continue reading The Indiana Pacers chemistry is natural, but not accidental

The Indiana Pacers have never been more fun

The Indiana Pacers (12-9) have had better teams in the past but they’ve never been more fun than this.

Just watch this video. Feel the joy. Buy a home or rent an Airbnb in this lovely neighborhood.

Indiana’s never had more enjoyment from watching the Pacers than with this underdog group of running, gunning, have fun-ing bunch. Almost every game at the Fieldhouse turns into a house party.

The fun all starts with Lance Stephenson, who has averaged over 17 points per game in his last three and has added five assists and eight rebounds in consecutive games.

Stephenson is the Pacers prodigal son, who languishes outside of Indiana when he’s not wearing the blue and gold and thrives in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. He dances and inspires dances. He prances. He plays air guitar. He high-fives the crowd. He head-butts stanchions.

“Coach is doing a good job of letting me play through mistakes,” Stephenson said after tonight’s party of a win against the Orlando Magic. “He lets me be me.”

The Pacers fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Everything that Lance does elicits a louder reaction than if someone else would have done the same. So when he does something special as has been the case often lately, it feels like the roof may collapse.

But the Pacers are this fun for more than just Lance reasons.

Victor Oladipo made his first 11 shots tonight, which included maybe five heat checks that all went in. It got to the point where even he didn’t know what was happening after banking in a 3-pointer.

Domantas Sabonis continues to be gift from the basketball gods, (mostly the god of European big men Arydvas Sabonis). He scored 19 points while taking just seven shots, added eight rebounds and five assists. That crazy play by Lance wouldn’t have been possible without his expert cut at just the right time.

“I don’t know. It just happens,” Domas said of his on-court play with Lance, “… He understands me. It’s just chemistry.”

The Pacers other stud young big man, Myles Turner, was no slouch tonight either as he scored 18 points in the first three quarters, being unleashed from long range with five attempts and three makes. He nearly had four made 3-pointers but his toes were on the line on one attempt.

“The thing I love about this team is that we never stop competing,” Turner said.

Every game is non-stop effort from the Pacers. They may lose some games, but as Turner said, they’re always competing. Whether they’re down 22 in the third quarter or having just lost a lead at the start of the fourth quarter like tonight.

The Magic were up one briefly in the fourth quarter. Then the Pacers went on a 23-5 run.

The Pacers aren’t just a one-man show these days. Anybody is capable of a huge night to lift the team, Bojan Bogdanovic continues to show a more all-around offensive game than many expected, Thad Young is the glue guy, Darren Collison is capable of occasional 30-point nights. They play together and as a unit. They care about each other off the court.

These Pacers are modern. These Pacers are always looking to run. These Pacers love to play together. The Pacers have never been more fun.

A Weekly Dose of Pacers Positivity #5: Chemistry is Cooking

For A Weekly Dose of Pacers Positivity, I will bring a short column that highlights something about this team that gives me hope. The season is long. We need to focus on the positives whether in the midst of a winning streak or the depths of a rough patch. And in this stretch of big (like, HUGE) wins, I thought it best to focus on something that is all too rare in the NBA: noticeable chemistry.

Continue reading A Weekly Dose of Pacers Positivity #5: Chemistry is Cooking

Stray Pacervations: Odds and Ends of the Indiana Pacers winning streak

Stray Pacervations is intended to shed light on the odds and ends, the small things and possible trends that happen during Indiana Pacers games. Some good. Some bad. Some neither.

The Pacers have won four games in a row, four road games in a row, five out of six overall, and just won all three games in a 4-night stretch. It’s been fun. Let’s dive right in.  Continue reading Stray Pacervations: Odds and Ends of the Indiana Pacers winning streak

Why everybody loves playing with Domantas Sabonis

Game after game, it seems like there are more and more reasons to gush over the performance of Domantas Sabonis.

He’s been called the quarterback of the offense by Thaddeus Young. Nate McMillan said early in the year that they like to run the offense through him while he’s out there. He’s played two games while battling an illness only to produce a couple of his best performances of the season in those contests.  Continue reading Why everybody loves playing with Domantas Sabonis

Lance Stephenson makes ’em dance their way to a comeback victory

INDIANAPOLIS — After being down by 22 points with less than six minutes left in the third quarter, the Indiana Pacers outscored the Detroit Pistons 51-22 the remainder of the game to win in impressive fashion by a final of 107-100 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Pacers were kick-started by none other than the infectious energy of Lance Stephenson in the fourth quarter as he scored all 13 of his points and grabbed six rebounds in the final 12 minutes.  Continue reading Lance Stephenson makes ’em dance their way to a comeback victory

Two-Ahh: Pacers lose third straight game after blowing lead in second half

For the third consecutive game, the Indiana Pacers played terrific basketball in the first half, scoring a ridiculous 75 points tonight.

In the last three games, the Pacers have outscored opponents in the first half 200-166.  Continue reading Two-Ahh: Pacers lose third straight game after blowing lead in second half

Stray Pacervations: The Good, The Bad and the In-Between

Stray Pacervations is intended to shed light on small things and possible trends that happen during Indiana Pacers games. Some good. Some bad. Some in between.

1. Domas Sabonis rebounding and pushing the pace. There are so many things to love about Sabonis’s game already, but this might be my current favorite. When Sabonis grabs a defensive rebound and no defender is near, instead of pausing and finding the outlet pass, Sabonis will immediately turn into a dribble while looking for an open man. It’s a small thing but it helps the Pacers gain a little bit of extra time for their budding transition offense.  Continue reading Stray Pacervations: The Good, The Bad and the In-Between

Pacers show encouraging signs in preseason win to start new era

The Indiana Pacers won their preseason opener in Milwaukee by a final score of 104-86. The Pacers ran away with the game in the third quarter where they outscored the Bucks 30-15. Myles Turner and Lance Stephenson led the team in scoring with 17 points each.

While the preseason results don’t matter, this was the new-look Pacers first opportunity to play together outside of practice, and it was an interesting dive into what the Pacers will strive to be in the regular season. Here’s some takeaways from game one:

Myles Turner is going to shoot more threes. A third of Turner’s 12 shot attempts were from beyond the 3-point line. While Turner managed to make only one attempt of his four tonight, it was encouraging to see him look to shoot from distance with confidence. Turner’s defense was also impressive. Turner was active at the rim, looked to consistently be in the correct position, and grabbed nine rebounds. Turner showed some improvement in post defense, forcing multiple misses in the first half, while also showing his great rim protection on multiple occasions with three blocks. Turner’s development is the key for the Pacers to accelerate this rebuilding era, and it’s quite possible he’ll have an All-Star selection coming his way this season.

Victor Oladipo has the greenest of green lights. Oladipo shot it early and often, shooting 8 times in the first quarter. He finished with 15 points on 15 shot attempts (making six). It’s clear that Oladipo will be one of the Pacers first scoring options and may lead the team in scoring, efficiency probably won’t be great.

Lance will make us dance. Stephenson will serve as the sixth man this year and he looked much like the player that he only seems to be in a Pacers uniform. Stephenson was the main ball handler for the second unit and set up Domantas Sabonis numerous times with nifty passes as they’ve seemed to gain some chemistry over the summer as both have spent the offseason in Indianapolis. Stephenson is going to flirt with triple doubles, get hyped, take maddening mid-range jump shots, bully his way to the rim, make some occasional threes. Stephenson finished with 17 points, six assists and six rebounds.

Damien Wilkins looks alright. Old Man Wilkins, complete with gray facial hair, was a questionable free agent signee at 37 years old and being out of the NBA for the past four seasons. Tonight, Wilkins led the Pacers in scoring in the first half with 10 points and finished with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting. He looks like he’ll adequately serve as the backup small forward while Glenn Robinson III is out with his severe ankle injury. While you could still argue that the Pacers would be better served giving those minutes to a young player like Alex Poythress or Ben Moore that need the development time, Wilkins won’t be a liability on the court and should be a good veteran presence while with the second unit. His situation seems reminiscent of Rasual Butler from 2013-14.

He currently looks like a lock to make the roster. Alex Poythress may be a candidate for the final spot as he was the 12th player to enter the game tonight, which would open up one of the Pacers 2-way contract spots for either Jarrod Uthoff or Ben Moore, neither of whom played tonight.

Al Jefferson is going to have to earn his way back on the court. At least for tonight’s game, the Pacers played Sabonis at the backup five and rookie TJ Leaf as the backup power forward. While Less Big Al lost 40 pounds over the offseason and seems more intent on a better season this year, he’s currently the third-string center. It’s possible the Pacers end up deciding that Leaf isn’t quite ready for minutes yet, but at least to start the season (and in training camp practices), Jefferson will be mainly on the bench.

It’s perilous to make many judgments based on the first preseason game (the Pacers showed encouraging signs last year in the first preseason game too), but the Pacers seemed committed to the running style that they’ve been talking about pursuing for years, and Wilkins praised the team chemistry after the game, which has been a struggle for the Pacers for the past couple of seasons as well.