Preseason Impressions - Pacers Beat Timberwolves

The Indiana Pacers made their home preseason debut last night and treated those in attendance to a come-from-behind win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Of course, these are exhibition games, so it’s hard to take what you see at face value. Other than Derrick Williams, no Minny starter played more than 12 minutes – or at all in the second half. Even Williams – who scored 25 points in 38 minutes of floor action – may not be a full-time starter for Minny, as Andrei Kirilenko (DNP-CD) started in the Timberwolves’ win over the Pacers on Wednesday night.

Indiana, of course, played without Danny Granger, George Hill, and Roy Hibbert last night (and without Granger, Hill, and David West on Wednesday night). This means that the Pacers have yet to play with their team’s “star”: the starting five-man unit of Hill/George/Granger/West/Hibbert.

So, while it’s impossible to draw a direct line between what we saw last night and who either of these teams will be when the games count, you can get some individual impressions.

Paul George Is Looking to Shoot

“Danny’s out right now, and whether he was or not, we want him [George] to play with more assertiveness,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said of his third-year wing who scored 19 points on 18 shots. In the first two preseason games, Paul George has been either option 1 or 1A in the Pacer offense. He has averaged almost 24 “adjusted field goal attempts per 36 minutes” (AdjFG36 = (FGA+0.44*FTA)/MP*36) in those games. For some perspective, over his first 127 regular season games, George has averaged roughly 13 AdjFGA36, and he only eclipsed 20 eight times.

He’s been the team’s leading scorer in both games, but Vogel said that putting George in a position to be more assertive was only part of the reason for his heavy usage thus far. “You’re looking at your best option on the floor,” said Vogel. “You want to run your offense through guys that you think are going to be efficient. I have a lot of confidence that he’s going to be efficient and be a good decision maker with the basketball. You need to have those touches and those experiences to grow the way you need to grow. That’s why it’s almost a blessing right now, that we’re taking Danny along slow.”

And it’s especially a blessing that this can happen in the preseason. While George has done a lot of good things, he’s got to get much better before he justifies Vogel’s faith in his efficiency. His eFG% is only .464 (league average was .487 during the lockout-shortened 2012 season, though it’s usually around .500), and his 8 turnovers in 50 minutes is somewhat disturbing. Also, his defense has been spotty — some of which is attributable to his added focus at the offensive end. However, a lot of it is that he simply struggles to guard small forwards. His greatest natural advantage — his length — is mitigated, and he’s not strong enough to deal with the bigger players he’s facing.

Kinda the Same, Kinda Different

Indiana Pacers games over the course of took on a certain rhythm: solid-to-good start, a dead spot at the end of the first/beginning of the second quarter, then a big third quarter. Last night flowed in a somewhat similar manner. An early lead dwindled to 1 by the end of the 1st, then became a double-digit deficit after Minnesota hung a 13-2 run on the Pacers to start the second. The teams went to the half with Minny up 11, but that was quickly erased as the Pacer starters (playing against the Minnesota bench) scored the first 10 points of the third.

The T-Wolves pushed it back to 6-to-8 points, and held that lead for the rest of the quarter, entering the 4th with a 7-point cushion. Trailing by 7 with just over 10 minutes left, a unit led by the backcourt of  Ben Hansbrough and Gerald Green rattled off 19 straight points to give the Pacers the lead for good. Hansbrough, who finished the game with 10 points, collected 4 of his 7 assists during the 4-minute stretch, while Green scored 5 points and dished an assist. The big man tandem of Miles Plumlee and Jeff Pendergraph combined for 10 points and 4 rebounds, and fun was had by all.

The chances of ever seeing that line up (Ben Hansbrough, Gerald Green, Sam Young, Jeff Pendergraph, Miles Plumlee) in a game that matters are (hopefully) infinitesimal. But … it’s stretches like that that give preseason games what little fun factor they have.

One-Hansbrough Rule?

When asked in his post-game presser if Tyler Hansbrough had drawn a DNP-CD due to a “one-Hansbrough rule,” Vogel explained that that wasn’t the case. He merely doesn’t like to use a lot of different guys at the same position, because he wants them to get a chance to get into the rhythm of the game. With West out Wednesday, Tyler got the starting minutes at the four. With West back, Pendergraph got the backup minutes last night, and Tyler will get them in the next game.

However, while that may not be an explicit rule for any given game, it is likely to become a fact when final cuts are made.

Ben Hansbrough played extremely well last night, 10 points and 7 assists, and was the spark plug for the second-half run. “I have to give credit to Ben Hansbrough,” Gerald Green told a collection of reporters in the locker room last night. “How hard he was playing and the effort he gave was just contagious. I have to commend him for leading the second team to a victory.”

Vogel said after the game that the younger Hansbrough had not played as well in camp as he did in the win, but that he had played well enough that the Pacer coach wanted to see him get some extended minutes to see what he can do. He showed a lot tonight. Green wasn’t the only teammate impressed.

“He’s a young guy, who plays with a lot of confidence,” said new Pacer center Ian Mahinmi. “So far, I’ve really been enjoying watching him play. A lot of energy … hustle … not afraid to get on the ground. And on top of that, he’s a knockdown shooter.”

But, still, Hansbrough faces a tough numbers game. The Pacers have 13 players in camp with guaranteed contracts. That leaves only two open slots (and quite possibly one, given the Pacers past stated desire to have the flexibility of an open spot) for which five players are fighting. Hansbrough and center Luke Nevill, are the only two with “training camp” contracts. The other three, forward Sam Young and guards Blake Ahearn and Sundiata Gaines, have minimum-level contracts, which while not fully guaranteed probably have some committed dollars.

Young, given the position and flexibility, probably has the inside track on slot #14, though that’s far from a lock. At the other end of the spectrum, Nevill is probably the next cut. That leaves Hansbrough, Ahearn, and Gaines fighting for that 15th spot — assuming the Pacers even fill it.

In small-sample-size theatre, Ben Hansbrough has a clear edge. He played much better in game two than either Ahearn or Gaines did in game one. However, it’s just one game, and Minnesota played their starters much more heavily in Wednesday night’s tilt in Fargo. Gaines, who has played in Utah and New Jersey, has a clear edge in experience, but it’s not an overwhelming advantage.

It will be interesting to watch what happens to the minutes over the rest of the preseason, particularly once George Hill returns to eat some minutes at the point guard. It’s my sense that if Hansbrough is still getting minutes over the last three or four games of the preseason, then Vogel and the coaching staff are looking for a reason to keep him. If, however, the last few games look more and more like regular rotations, with Hill back and Augustin working the second unit, then the Pacers are more likely to go with the more experienced Gaines or Ahearn — or none of the above.

Though, maybe it’s not as dire as it seems for Hansbrough. In looking at the Game Notes that the Pacers handed out to the media last night, I see that neither Miles Plumlee nor Orlando Johnson are listed on the roster.

New Guys in the Locker Room

Ten of the 18 players on the current roster are new to the Indiana Pacers. At least three — Ian Mahinmi, D.J. Augustin, and Gerald Green — figure to be key members of the rotation. For a team whose success is predicated on the whole, not the parts, this can be concerning. Fortunately, what I saw in last night’s locker room was pretty encouraging. It was a loose, friendly group, and the new guys seemed to fit very neatly into the type of team and environment the franchise wants to create.

Green, whose impressive talent and athletic ability proved unable to keep him in the league until (Indiana hopes) now, was genuine and likable. During the game, I had been impressed with his general discipline in playing within the framework of the team. He didn’t force shots, and finished with 18 points on 14 shots, while contributing 6 boards, 4 assists and a couple steals. In his interview after the game, he was quick to acknowledge his teammates and coaches, and he spoke of ideas like “intelligent tempo” and the team being “intelligently fast” not as if they were canned responses, but principles he had taken to heart.

But the most encouraging thing was Green’s focus on doing the right thing. He readily acknowledged that he had bad shot selection early in his career, and credited Eric Musselman and Avery Johnson for helping him slow down and understand where he could score the best. But, the most telling thing wasn’t what he said in an interview.

As he sat at his locker looking at the stat sheet, he said to Sundiata Gaines, with whom he had played in New Jersey, “Man, that’s too many — too many threes.” He was unhappy that 6 of his 14 shots had been beyond the arc, because “that’s not my game. I need to get inside, get to the post.”

Meanwhile, Ian Mahinmi — who played a very strong floor game with 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks — held court with reporters. Resplendent in an exquisitely tailored grey suit accented with blood orange socks and geek chic glasses, Mahinmi touched all the bases, from the team growing together to the difference in his role here compared with Dallas to the need to get to Miles Plumlee early (who had dressed and departed in a Pacer hoodie and warmup pant) just so the rookie would learn to dress well for the rest of his career.

I mentioned earlier that this team’s “star” was their starting unit, but it goes further than that. For the Pacers to replicate — and build on — last year’s success, they will all have to do it together. It is very important to their success that these new guys contribute their identities to the whole. Again, it’s preseason, so there are no fixed conclusions, only impressions.

For me, I’d call this a good first impression.

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