Walking into Conseco "Reggie Miller" Fieldhouse on Friday was eerily familiar. Nothing much has changed. Everything is right where its supposed to be.
The security is the same, ticket checkers go by the familiar names, the Pacemates greet you with those pearly whites at the gate, and the green seats were exactly the same where I watched the Pacers struggle to a 36-46 record last season.
The starting lineup was familiar (missing Troy Murphy due to injury and Roy Hibbert due to the H1F6 virus, a disease that hinders an individual from actually improving his capabilities to not foul with ridiculous abandonment unless it's in a Summer League game). New addition Dahntay Jones, wearing No. 1 on his jersey and sporting a shaved head, looked uncannily like Jarrett Jack from the nosebleeds of the arena. Of course, it was easy to realize the difference once you began to wonder why "Jack" was actually playing some defense.
The only obvious difference in the arena was the overtaking of the Home Court gift shop by the Indiana Fever. And then the game started. The arena was 7,000-strong (the other 6,000 who were "reportedly" in attendance in the box score must have been stuck at Jillian's), meaning the empty balcony made you feel right at home again. You could have told me this game was being played in January during a 10-game losing streak and I wouldn't have known the difference.
We watched Danny Granger dominating like an All-Star, T.J. Ford playing just to his potential and not above it, Josh McRoberts exciting us with a thunderous dunk (which he donned his flowing locks in a Teen Wolf-style homage), Brandon Rush sinking into an invisible shell for the first half, Hibbert falling back into all-to-familiar habits and Mike Dunleavy sitting comfortably on the bench in a handsome-looking suit. The Pacers also allowed those third-quarter blues to continue as they gave up a 34-19 advantage, helping land the L in the record column.
And, yet, although a lot of things seemed the same and the Pacers still lost to a division rival, it also feels differently. It can only get better from here, right? It certainly looked and felt like this team had only played together for five days. Misguided passes bounced off the back of player's jerseys, errant passes sailed out of bounds, and poor shot selection left the clanking sound of the rim ring in my ears throughout the night.
The chemistry just isn't there yet. But when the familiar starters were in the game, things went a little more smoothly. And that's why this trip overseas could be the best thing that happens to this team.
Remember when Boston went over to Europe in 2007? Not comparing the Pacers newbies with the Hall-of-Famers that the Celtics brought in that year, but all the Celts could talk about how amazing that trip bonded them on-the-court, but even more importantly, off of it. The overseas trip, if done correctly, will certainly bring these players closer together than they could ever want. It won't be a cure-all for the troubles on the hardwood, but maybe this is just what the team needs to go from a No. 9 seed to a No. 8 seed, which is a big difference in PacerLand these days.
The Pacers already have a core group with some of the better personalities and chemistry in the league. Maybe this preseason voyage to Taiwan and China in the coming weeks brings the newbies together in a way that couldn't have happened if they were still in Indiana. I mean, when you've got 12 guys puking their guts out after eating the native food, it has a strange way of bringing men together.
This was just one preseason game that happened a mere one week after the season had started. Key players were missing, new players were trying to gel and some old players fell back into old routines. The Pacers have less than a month to right the ship and begin playing a better brand of basketball and defense.
So although things at Conseco look a lot like last year, it actually feels different. It was a rocky first start of the year for both the Bulls and Pacers, but this is the type of team that's going to really benefit from these next two weeks abroad.