The discussion quickly turned to tempo when Nate McMillan met with the media following the Pacers’ practice on Tuesday. Wednesday’s opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, will want to keep it under control, while the Pacers will try to speed it up.
Who gets their way likely will have a lot to do with the outcome of the game in Memphis, and that happens to be one of the Pacers’ primary challenges. They aren’t keeping up — not only with the pace of the league, but the pace they want to play.
“We’ve slowed down (recently),” McMillan said, citing one of the reasons his team has lost five of six games since it started the season 5-3.
McMillan remains committed to an uptempo offense, because he believes he has the personnel to run one. Among the starters, guards Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo both have sprinting bloodlines, and Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young run better than most players at their position. The other starter, Bojan Bogdanovic, has no trouble keeping up, and is a natural for filling passing lanes to spot up for 3-pointers in transition.
The reserves fit the plan as well, particularly guards Lance Stephenson and Cory Joseph. Glenn Robinson III will, too, when he returns — probably in December.
That’s why McMillan will stay with his approach through the thick and thin of this season, unlike a year ago when he abandoned his uptempo intentions early on because of his team’s struggling defense and inconsistent willingness to run.
The defense still needs plenty of work, and that’s where uptempo offense begins. Easy transition baskets are difficult to come by for teams that are constantly taking the ball out of the net after giving up points, and the Pacers have had to do that too often. They are allowing 109.1 points per game, 27th in the NBA, which hasn’t been enough to make up for their offense, which averages a sixth-best 108 points.
“We need to be better defensively to get stops and rebound the ball, but even when we have rebounded the ball I’d like to see us play faster,” McMillan said. “We’re walking the ball up the floor, playing more of a halfcourt game. We’re going to have to be able to play that style of basketball, but we want to first look for something early.
“We have the speed. We’ve shown that.”
McMillan said he’ll be preaching the same sermon at the end of the season if his players don’t respond consistently. Most players say they want to run, but actually doing it, and doing it consistently, is difficult. It requires both maximum effort and focus throughout 48-minute game — 82 of them. It’s always going to be tempting to slow down now and then, especially during difficult stretches of the schedule.
Only time will tell if this team can do it.
“That’s something we’ll be looking at all season,” McMillan said. “Can we play fast, and can we be tough defensively?
“That remains to be seen. This isn’t something where, if we can’t do it in 20 games, we’ll go to something else. This is the style of play we feel we can play. It’s the style of play the NBA is playing. We’ll see where we are in April and, hopefully, May.”
Habits take time to take hold, so McMillan will be patient. Oladipo, meanwhile, likely will continue to flourish. He’s averaging a career-high 23.4 points on 48 percent shooting, and pushing the tempo better than anyone — sometimes to a fault, when he forces a shot in transition. He, more than anyone, will set the pace, and hope someone runs with him.
“Sometimes we’re subject to playing the other team’s pace instead of our own,” Oladipo said. “No matter what, we need to force it sometimes. Not too crazy, but the parts of the game when we can, play our pace as much as possible.
“We are a new group, and sometimes when you’re trying to build a habit you can revert to old ones. You have to remind yourself.”
The missing link between defending and scoring in transition is usually a rebound, and the Pacers need more of those. They give up nearly two more per game than they get, but have the legitimate excuse of missing their two best rebounders in varying degrees stretches. Center Myles Turner missed seven games with a concussion and says he’s still not 100 percent. Backup center Domantas Sabonis missed two games with a bruised calf.
Playing them together obviously would improve the odds of a rebound, and could help the halfcourt offense as well. Turner, who’s averaging 14.3 points, is a legitimate defense-stretching perimeter threat. Sabonis is the team’s best passer, the team’s best low-post scoring threat and has hit 2-of-5 3-point shots.
Because of their respective injuries, McMillan has been able to play the two together in just four games, for a combined total of 23 minutes. Results have trended toward the positive, but it’s far too early to draw conclusions. McMillan, for now, wants to try it more often. Turner can move to the “four” position while Sabonis can play “five,” but that’s another change that will require an adjustment period.
“We’re still learning what our guys can do and the combinations that work well together,” McMillan said.
Turner and Sabonis both said Tuesday they’re eager to play together more often, although neither is exactly campaigning for it.
“The advantage is just the confusion we give the other team,” Turner said. “We make teams think.”
“It gives us more defense, more rebounding, more spreading-the-court shooting ability,” Sabonis said. “But at the end of the day, I like playing with everyone.”
McMillan isn’t ready to force the issue by throwing them together in the starting lineup. That would remove Young from the mix, and Young — aside from a scoreless clunker in Sunday’s loss to Houston – has been one of the team’s most consistent players. He’s averaging 13.6 points on 48 percent shooting, is a legitimate 3-point threat at 36.5 percent, leads the team in steals (1.5) and averages six rebounds as well.
“We’re not at that point where we want to experiment,” McMillan said. “Thaddeus is our starting four.”
In other words, McMillan will continue to run with his current starters. He just hopes they run faster.
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