Prior to the Pacers holding on to beat the Raptors on Friday night, Nate McMillan was managing expectations as his team started a daunting back-to-back set against Toronto and Boston.
“We’re still a work in progress,” McMillan said.
McMillan interrupted the question which started with the premise that his team was considered a work in progress before the season started. Five wins in a row is nice, but McMillan is right that his team is still figuring things out on the fly.
Fortunately, whether due to injuries, matchups or flow of a particular game, there have been a wide variety of lineup combinations in varying situations which have found a way to work. That success has the Pacers grinding together as a team, sticking through rough patches knowing if they don’t let up one of them will make a play to swing things back in a positive direction.
The biggest area in need of work remains on the defensive end where the Pacers are steadily improving but certainly qualify as a “work in progress” with their solid play recently moving them up to 17th in the NBA in defensive rating, giving up 105.3 points per 100 possessions.
McMillan also mentioned the need to improve on defense prior to the game, a defense that is now leaning on Bojan Bogdanovic to guard key wings.
“Having that elite defender at the wing position to guard a guy like DeRozan tonight,” McMillan said when asked what the team needs for further improvement. He went on to say Bogdanovic is getting the first crack on the bigger twos and threes because of his size and how he can make guys shoot over him as part of a team defensive effort.
“We're not labeling him as a stopper,” McMillan said with a smile. But McMillan emphasized that Bogey doesn’t back down from the challenge and slowing down elite players like DeRozan requires a full team effort to make it all work.
Well, against the Raptors it worked quite well. Bogdanovic frustrated DeRozan into a 6 for 16 shooting night when the Raptors’ all-star scored just 13 points, well below his 24 ppg average.
After the game, McMillan was a bit more effusive in his praise of his sweet-shooting defender.
"I thought it was probably one of the better jobs I've seen on DeRozan since I've been here," McMillan said.
"We've had some really good defenders in a Pacers uniform the last four or five years.”
Uh, yeah, there have been some good defenders since McMillan joined the organization five years ago. To be fair, Paul George had his moments of shutting down DeRozan while also getting torched in other games.
As McMillan noted, you can’t stop elite wings like LeBron and DeRozan since they can put any defender at their mercy, but making them work all game is the key to slowing them down.
Bogdanovic is always susceptible to a blow-by drive, but after watching him over the last month, especially away from the ball, I’ve been impressed with his effort to defend. Results may not always be reliable but Bogey’s effort to play hard and improve has been apparent for some time and that effort is being rewarded with quality results of late.