When the Cleveland Cavaliers take the court at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday night, just about all of the focus will be on the defending Eastern Conference champions. We’ll be looking at whether they’re ready to try hard despite the fact that the calendar reads “November” rather than “May.” We’ll be tracking their start, seeing whether they’re ready to come out of the gate strong rather than “getting boned early” to set the stage for dispiriting early exits. We’ll be examining body language, trying to see if that Clear-the-Air Team Meeting seven games into the new campaign looks like it got Tyronn Lue’s team on the same page.
And then, maybe, if we’re not too busy, we’ll find time to take a look at the team they’re playing. On Wednesday, it’ll be the Indiana Pacers — a team few of us expected to do very much, coming off the summertime exit of superstar Paul George, and one that has started the season by doing precisely the kinds of things that can make life miserable for a sleepwalking Cleveland side.
The Pacers did what solid, professional, respectable teams do on Tuesday night, welcoming a young and rebuilding team — the Sacramento Kings — into their gym, and efficiently beating the brakes off of them.
The Pacers opened the game on a 17-4 run and absolutely never let up. Starters Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young didn’t see the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the fourth quarter, because they didn’t need to. They took care of business early, leading by as many as 28 before intermission and cruising to a 101-83 victory that never seemed that close.
It wasn’t the most beautiful offensive game you’ll ever see — well, except for stuff like these honeys drawn up by Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo, catching the Kings napping with back-cuts and perfectly placed bounce-pass dimes for two-hand dunks …
— Justin Jett (@JustinJett_) October 31, 2017
— rankplays (@rankplays) November 1, 2017
… but it was effective. The Pacers clamped down on the Kings’ dismal offense, holding Sacramento to just 35.5 percent shooting from the field through the first three quarters, and defended without drawing whistles, limiting Dave Joerger’s crew to just seven free-throw attempts before a fourth quarter of extended garbage time. They shared the ball, logging 15 assists on 25 field goals through three quarters, and took care of it, committing only nine turnovers in that span.
Four players (Oladipo, Sabonis, Young, Bojan Bogdanovic) scored in double figures. Sabonis commanded the glass, grabbing 12 rebounds (and dishing five assists) before halftime. Everyone hustled and flowed; it just seemed to work.
Through two weeks, it’s been seeming to work a little more often than it hasn’t, with Nate McMillan’s team opening the new season 4-3. The Pacers enter Wednesday sitting third in the NBA in offensive efficiency, averaging 107.5 points per 100 possessions, and — in something of a change for McMillan, whose Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers teams tended to move at, shall we say, a more considered tempo — they’re getting out and running, ranking nine in the league in pace.
They’ve gotten off to a more middling start on the other end of the court, tied with the New York Knicks for 15th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession thus far. But here’s where we remind you that they’ve been without rising-star shot-blocker Myles Turner for six of their seven games, after losing the former first-round draft pick on opening night to a concussion.
Indy’s held down the fort in his absence, though. Led by Oladipo and Collison up top, they’ve been playing with active hands on defense, ranking sixth in the league in deflections per game. They’ve been keeping opponents from launching long-range shots — only four teams are giving up fewer 3-pointers per game, and only eight are conceding fewer bombs from the short corners — and keeping the other guys off the stripe, tying for 10th in opponents’ free-throw attempts per game.
Not satisfied to be viewed as simply the quarters going the other way for the bona fide dollar that was George, Oladipo and Sabonis have looked great. The former has been red hot shooting the ball, averaging a team-high 23.9 points per game while draining 50.7 percent of his 2-point shots, 45.7 percent of his 3-point tries and 87.8 percent of his freebies. After leading the Pacers in scoring, and delivering a thrilling buzzer-beating win over the San Antonio Spurs, the former Indiana University standout earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors.
The latter has stepped into the void left by Turner’s concussion and promptly started looking like the playmaking pivot he was back at Gonzaga. The son of the great Arvydas Sabonis is averaging 12.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 26.9 minutes per game as a starter, throwing his weight around on the boards, sniffing out smart passes to throw his teammates open, and generally adding more things to the table than he takes off.
“He makes guys better,” McMillan said of Sabonis, according to Clifton Brown of the Indianapolis Star. “His basketball IQ is very high. He understands the game.”
Almost everyone in Indiana seems to, right now. They’re sixth in the league in passes per game, up from 24th last season. They’re moving the ball and their bodies in search of a good look at the rim, which they’re getting more than all but five other teams in the league thus far, according to Ben Falk’s shooting stats at Cleaning the Glass. When they get stops, they’re pushing, generating a higher share of their offensive possessions in transition than everybody but the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers.
When you don’t want to make the extra effort — on the cut, on the break, on the glass — they are. They’re digging in and executing, and so far, it’s paying off.
“So far,” of course, being the operative term. Whether Oladipo can keep this up, or Sabonis will continue producing that multiplier effect once he’s relegated to the bench by Turner’s return, or Collison and backup Cory Joseph will keep giving you 22 and 10 with active defense without many mistakes all remain to be seen. Ditto for the defense keeping opponents out of the bonus and away from big nights from long range.
Maybe some of that comes back down to earth. Maybe it’s not balanced, or balanced enough, by stuff like the return of Turner, or Collison (a 37.8 percent career 3-point shooter making just over 30 percent this season) and Bogdanovic (36.9 percent career, 34.6 percent this season) bumping back up to their career norms, or Lance Stephenson hitting more than 27 percent of his shots. That wouldn’t be surprising; in fact, it’d be about what we all expected.
One of the things a team can control, though, is its effort. And as some punter named Kelly Dwyer wrote on Wednesday at The Second Arrangement, the Pacers “are listening to Nate McMillan,” and showing that they’re “going to play strong basketball” this season. It might not lead to outsized stat lines or highlights, but in the aggregate, it can be pretty fun to watch, as Jim Ayello wrote for the Star:
It’s the 13-year NBA veteran with balky knees sliding into the lane to let Paul George barrel into him for the charge.
It’s the overlooked point guard poking his hand into the passing lane so the budding star can scoop up the ball and take it to the other end for a layup.
It’s the big man, hellbent on proving he’s not “the other guy” in the George trade, forcing himself into the lane, and amid three Spurs putting back a missed shot to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. […]
“A veteran like Al (Jefferson) getting in the lane to take a charge, there’s something special there,” assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke said recently. “We have a team that plays with heart. They have enthusiasm and passion. They just have this will. They love to play hard.”
That, as much as the Cavs’ eternal internecine squabbles, will be worth watching on Wednesday. Because if you don’t, even if you’ve got the best player on the floor, maybe they can beat you, too.
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