A fresh-start Indiana Pacers opened up preseason play with a positive first impression, imposing their will on a short-handed Milwaukee Bucks team. Indiana showcased a quicker pace; an exciting style that can go a long way in helping fans invest in a team that will spend nearly their entire 82 game schedule figuring out what they are and what their long-term plan is.
For one preseason game, however, the Pacers made their case. The shortened preseason schedule, from seven games to four, means less time to evaluate camp bodies, and more time to focus on the guys who will be expected to make an impact throughout the regular season. Indiana shot 42% for the game, but just 25% from three.
Nate McMillan employed a 13-man rotation en route to the win, focusing on a starting and reserve unit, giving roughly a quarter of time to each unit. With the starting unit, the Pacers got their first real look at a third-year Myles Turner, who led all starters with 17 points and nine rebounds.
Turner looked primed to take a next step this season not only with his ability to protect the rim, sending away three blocks on the night, but with a more versatile offensive game. Turner looked more comfortable deeper, shooting 3-7 in long range jumpers and threes. In addition, Turner showed off an improved passing game, zipping a few passes to guys inside, unfortunately lacking the conversions necessary to complete assists, finishing with zero.
Victor Oladipo’s debut proved successful, scoring 15 points, but where he finds success scoring will be worth sorting out. Oladipo was just 1-6 from three point range, but was 5-9 inside the arc, including eight points coming in the paint, where he was strong and determined heading towards the basket.
Three point shooting as a whole was a problem for Indiana, finishing 11-43, but the willingness may level itself out if the Pacers remain that committed to three point shooting. The addition of Bojan Bogdanovic is one of the keys in improving that three point shooting, but he was just 1-6 himself from deep.
Unlike Thaddeus Young, who also struggled scoring, but found other ways to make plays with eight rebounds, what Bogdanovic excels at beyond three point shooting will be another big question for the Pacers on nights like tonight where he’s not making an impact deep.
Darren Collison was impressive in his return to the Pacers, hitting a pair of threes to finish with 10 points and five assists, but was incredibly opportunistic on the defensive end, finishing with seven steals. The seven steals may prove an outlier as even post-Indiana, Collison hasn’t improved much in that area, but it’s one of the many areas the Pacers need to find responses to in a post-Paul George era.
In the second unit, the Pacers got a whole lot of Lance Stephenson. There’s no real surprise in Stephenson’s game at this point, but he’s going to deliver that style of play. Stephenson joined Turner to lead all scorers with 17 points, heading up at the end of the first half after a slow shooting start to finish 7-14 with a lot of heat checks along the way.
Stephenson finished with six assists, but a pair of turnovers and four fouls (including a bad foul after a turnover). Even if Stephenson gives Indiana the 50/50 nature of play fans have come to expect, it should still be a positive for the bench unit, which Stephenson clearly controlled. That control of pace did raise its own set of questions, such as what role will Cory Joseph serve?
Joseph contributed 18 solid minutes, appearing every bit the reliable veteran presence Indiana is looking for in weathering a potentially difficult season. However, he came to the Pacers having spent much of last year playing as a point guard with Toronto, something that may be up in the air if Stephenson dominates the ball as he did tonight.
Joseph’s role within the second unit wasn’t the only question to come from tonight’s game, not with the side-eye curiosity as to whether or not Demontas Sabonis can put the ball through the hoop. Sabonis rebounded well and moved well with the ball, but at just 3-11 shooting, it wasn’t quite the first impression Pacers fans were hoping for from the young big.
Sabonis may stumble into a lot of minutes regardless, especially with Al Jefferson, a slimmer, fitter Al Jefferson, looking a lot like Al Jefferson, which is to say, if the Pacers are committed to a faster pace, there may still be no place for even a slimmer, fitter Jefferson in what the Pacers will be looking to do. Not to mention Joe Young-level of play from Joe Young and Indiana could be tying up a pair of roster spots in guys that may not fit a long term goal of improving.
T.J. Leaf also made his debut for the Pacers, scoring four second half points and generally playing like a rookie in his first taste of NBA action. There were surprises off of the bench, however, in particular Damien Wilkins stepping in and leading the Pacers in scoring after the first half. Wilkins had 10 of his 12 in the first half, finishing as one of just five Pacers to shoot at 50% or better for the game. Preseason rust is real, or so that’s the hope.
Wilkins’s role with the Pacers should he land a spot will be an interesting one. He’s been out of the league since 2013, but has a history with McMillan dating back to Seattle in 2005. Ideally, spotting minutes to a young wing player as Indiana awaits the return of Glenn Robinson III could be more productive long term, but the short term issue of what the Pacers are facing in regards to their wing depth does it make it easier to look towards Wilkins, and his first showcase provided Indiana with some positives.
The preseason adjustments will be worth keeping an eye on with regards to the bench, because the starting lineup appears set and in most cases, you have a good idea what to expect from each of the five starters. With questions on ball handling, fit, and overall flow, the second unit will be the primary focus as the preseason progresses. Their next game will be Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.