Pacers’ togetherness and team ego fuels 48-win season

Pacers, Domantas Sabonis

The Pacers aren’t done yet. Victor Oladipo reminded the crowd that before tip-off of their regular season finale Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“We’re not done yet,” he told the crowd of 17,331. “The playoffs start this weekend so I look forward to seeing all you guys there. Let’s go shock the world.”

In reality, that’s what this team has done all season. Kevin Pritchard started the chain of events, after being shocked himself, when he accepted a deal for Paul George that brought Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to town. Both are young, have yet to hit their prime, and clearly benefited from a change in scenary.

In all, just six players were brought back from last year’s playoff team that was swept in Round 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. McMillan readied for his second season as Pacers head coach and this year promised to be much different. Yet nobody saw this group coming together as it did.

But they saw something special beginning in September as most of the team gathered at the practice facility, the St. Vincent Center for offseason workouts. They started to click. Sabonis took note of Lance Stephenson’s sharp passing. Al Jefferson began to work with Myles Turner and other bigs in the post. Glenn Robinson III was poised for a strong season.

Then media day hit, and the questions were all too similar. About the trade … still … tempering expectations, and how long it might take to build chemistry. Turner was the most forward about his belief after what he saw in September. Darren Collison even predicted that Oladipo — a sure-thing for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award — would be an All-Star, as he was. Collison, now 30, even surprised himself by leading the league in 3-point percentage (46.8 percent).

[Turner: ‘I’m just very excited about this team.’]

“Personally, I never thought I would shoot this high [of percentage],” he said with a big grin. “It was high. I knew I would be in the 40s, but I should the ball really, really good. There’s some really good shooters in this league. It just goes back to hard work, being focused, being at the right spot at the right time, playing with some good teammates. It’s unbelievable, man.”

The Pacers qualified for the playoffs for the third straight year, and for the 23rd time over the last 29 years. That’s the longest-active streak in the Eastern Conference. All things considered over the last 10 months, this team deserves to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Head coach Nate McMillan gathered the team around in the locker room postgame and praised them for their work before giving them Wednesday off to get refreshed before a playoff run. These guys enjoy one another and play off each other so well.

“I’ve said this a number of times,’ McMillan said. “This team has given me all they have, every night. We may not have won games or played well but the effort has been there, and I can’t say that about a lot of my teams.

“This team has been just a joy to work with from day one.”

Being who he is, Lance always says something interesting when asked for his thoughts about this 48-win team.

“How together we are,” he said without hesitation. “No arguments, just playing hard, going out there to win every night, playing hard for coach, just being back with the Pacers.

“Everybody had a ego this year and wanted to do so good. We all had an ego to prove everyone wrong and everyone wanted to great this year. I think we put that all together and did it in a team way. The whole team had a successful year.”

Going into the season, it was a prove-it type of year for everyone individually. McMillan could elevate his coaching and these players had the proverbial chip on their shoulder. And they all exceeded expectations.

Oladipo was an All-Star. Sabonis’ performances have forced him into a conversation about deserving to start games. Collison led the entire NBA in 3-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. Lance was the motor and is easily the best passer on the team, and even veterans Damien Wilkins (more on him later) and Al Jefferson showed their value.

Las Vegas sports books projected the Pacers to win 31.5 games. They far surpassed that. They can soak it in for 24 hours, then it’s on to Cleveland (or Philadelphia).

“Now it’s a new season,” McMillan said. “See if you can advance. That’s the position that we’re in. We’re happy with what we’ve done in the regular season. Now, this is a new challenge to see where this team to go.”

All 82

The Pacers were able to rest three starters on Tuesday. They had earned that. Just like Thad Young, a veteran in this league, was asked whether he was OK resting, which would end his streak of perfect attendance this season.

“I told them no,” he said, ” because at the end of the day, it’s all all about staying healthy and being ready for the playoffs. Playing 82 would have been, but we have a bigger task at hand and bigger goal in mind, which is the playoffs and being mentally planned and physically ready.”

Cory Joseph, Pacers

Cory Joseph played in all 82 games this season. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

Young aka Mr. Consistent, has appeared in every single game just once in 11 seasons, the 2010-11 season while with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Cory Joseph and Lance Stephenson were the only two players to accomplish the feat. For Joseph, who began his career in the San Antonio Spurs’ system, availability is everything. He’s played in all but seven games over the last four seasons. Teams like that, they need that.

For Lance, it’s all a blessing. He’s thankful to be back in Indy where the fans understand and appreciate his game. He was drafted by the Pacers in 2010 and over his eight seasons, this is his first time playing in all 82 games. A strained groin and sprained ankle kept him out for most of last season, when he played 18 games; six for the Pacers.

“Ah, man. It’s a blessing,” Stephenson said. “To play all 82, to be healthy playing, it’s a blessing. Anything can happen when you’re out there. I don’t take playing any game for granted.”

Lance Being Lance

There’s good Lance, and there’s bad Lance. This highlight sums it all up.

“I thought somebody [a teammate] was behind me,” he told me. “I felt like I ain’t got that high to block a shot since high school. It was an amazing block, I just forgot to keep playing defense.”

Wilkins Invited Back

Damien Wilkins received a surprise phone call Tuesday. On the other end with Chad Buchanan, the Pacers’ General Manager. He invited Wilkins and his fiancé, Jasmine, to Tuesday’s game. He signed with them in the offseason and was there from the beginning with this group. Damien deserved to be there when they completed the regular season portion of their schedule.

It was a classy gesture by Buchanan and the Pacers, and I’m glad Damien accepted it. He saw his ex-teammates briefly before the game and then was in the locker room after hitter 119-93 loss to Charlotte.

[Damien Wilkins proud of his time and impact with the Pacers]

“This locker room has a lot of character, as you can see,” Wilkins said while standing at Collison’s locker. “It also has a lot of chemistry. I think everyone just trusts each other and cares about each other, and that’s rare in professional sports.”

Al Jefferson, Damien Wilkins, Pacers

Damien Wilkins (row 2) talks with Al Jefferson.

It’s too bad it didn’t work out for the Pacers to bring him back late in the season, but it turned out they needed his roster spot for Trevor Booker at power forward. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilkins is hired in a front office role in the summer.)

Thad Young was thrilled to see Wilkins, who remains in contact with everyone, back around the squad.

“It means a lot,” Young said. “All this chemistry that everybody talks about that we have and this comradery and character in this locker room, it comes from him too. He’s the one who helped start it at the beginning of the season. He helped get us in check early in the season, and he believed in what we could do as a team.

“We’re all good friends and we love him as a brother.”

Sumner Scores in First NBA Game

With 2:10 left in the game, Edmond Sumner checked into an NBA game for the first time. The game was in hand, but that time isn’t meaningless for all.

Sumner suffered knee and shoulder injuries last spring that limited his time on the court, and then he spent most of the year with the Mad Ants of the G League in Fort Wayne. With their season complete, he and Ben Moore, each on two-way deals, joined the Pacers.

“It’s something you dream about,” he said. “This is a hard thing to accomplish so for me to actually finally get out there and play a little bit, it’s a great feeling.

“It’s still a surreal feeling. Just to get out there and even get a bucket. It’s great.

What’s Next

The Pacers will take Wednesday off, their second day off this week. It’s the final day of the regular season but they aren’t playing. There are 10 NBA games and they won’t learn their postseason fate until the end of the Cleveland and Philadelphia games.

Regardless, they’ll be on the road to open the playoffs this weekend. If Philadelphia win, it’ll be in Cleveland.

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