TJ Leaf scored 18 points in the fourth quarter of the Pacers’ preseason victory at Cleveland on Friday, so, naturally, he’s been promoted to the starting lineup.
Only literally, though. And only temporarily, too.
Leaf will start in Monday’s game at Detroit, as coach Nate McMillan rests four of his starters and takes a longer look at some of his non-starters. Leaf will be joined by starting point guard Darren Collison, veteran center Al Jefferson and two others against the Pistons. Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thad Young and Myles Turner will sit out, but the starting lineup will be intact again for Tuesday’s final game against Maccabi Haifa at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Leaf’s outburst against the Cavs, which led a Pacers’ comeback, did catch the attention of his coach and teammates, however, not to mention the people who texted and tweeted him following the game. Turner and Damien Wilkins were among those who made their compliments public via Twitter, and Turner followed up verbally following Sunday’s practice.
“Awesome, man,” he said. “Teams know what he’s capable of now. I was really happy for him.”
Leaf is often praised for his maturity, and he displayed it Sunday by not buying into either his performance or the reaction to it. He began training camp out of the rotation, but Glenn Robinson III’s sprained ankle created an opening for him. He knows he’s a long way from becoming a regular contributor, much less an actual starter in an actual regular season game.
“A lot of people told me I’m going to have a lot of ups and downs as a rookie, and I’ve got to stay neutral the whole time,” Leaf said. “That’s what I’m doing. It was just another game, and at that a preseason game. We’ve got to be focused on the next one, trying to get better every day.”
Still, Leaf’s performance wasn’t without meaning. He hit 62 percent of his field goal attempts in his only season at UCLA, including 47 percent of his 3-point shots. He hit 2-of-3 shots in his preseason debut at Milwaukee last Wednesday, and then 6-of-10 shots – including 4-of-5 3-pointers – against the Cavs.
So, it seems safe to say he’s a shooter.
He also shows agility getting to the basket and the ability to score off the dribble, portending a complete offensive game that will serve him well in the NBA once he matures physically. A performance such as the one on Friday, meanwhile, can only add to his intangibles.
“I think it definitely gives me a little more confidence,” he said. “My teammates have been trying to give me that confidence the whole time. At the end of the day, guys are finding me in the right spots and that’s why I was able to get some open looks.”
McMillan said Leaf forced a couple of missed shots early against the Cavs, but didn’t back down. He came out firing in the fourth quarter. McMillan called a play for him late in the game, which led to a 3-pointer that was crucial to the outcome.
“He has a lot to learn,” McMillan said. “I like his confidence.
“It’s slowly coming for him.”
McMillan also praises Leaf’s basketball IQ, which will come in handy as he floats between the “four” and “three” positions. Leaf came to the Pacers billed as a four, but has displayed perimeter skills throughout his career, dating back to high school. The New York Times published an article last season documenting his versatility and he continues to show it with the Pacers.
An argument could be made in favor of him playing three, but either way he faces challenges. For now, he lacks the footspeed to guard some threes on the perimeter and the strength to battle some fours around the basket.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” McMillan said. “I’ve talked to him about that, he’s much more comfortable at the four position.”
Then again, he should be able to pose challenges of his own to defenders. Besides, the line between threes and fours continues to blur in the NBA, as players such as him – he’s 6-10 and perhaps still growing – play farther and farther from the basket and improve their perimeter skills.
“Today, a lot of fours play the three and a lot of threes can play the four,” he said. “You’re playing against some of the same guys.
“When I get a little stronger, a little quicker, I’ll definitely be able to play both.”
Which should just about double his opportunity to play. Start, too.
The Pacers scored 104 and 106 points in their first two preseason games without shooting exceptionally well – 43 percent in the first one and 47 percent in the second.
That was a credit to their improved tempo, a major point of emphasis for McMillan this season.
“I love the tempo,” Turner said. “We establish our style of play from the jump when we play like that. Teams have to adjust to us. It’s a good way to play.”
McMillan attempted to do the same thing last season, but abandoned it early as his team didn’t defend or rebound well enough to justify a fast-paced offense. That will be a concern this season as well, as they play with a smaller lineup.
“We’re not going to win games if we don’t rebound the ball,” McMillan said.
The Pacers were outrebounded 51-41 by the Cavs, who were without LeBron James. They also started poorly, falling behind 19-5 at the outset and trailing by 19 points in the second quarter.
“We didn’t have the ball movement (in Cleveland),” McMillan said. “I thought there was a lot of one-on-one play. We’re going to have to play better at both ends of the floor. I thought it came down to our conditioning.”
The victory in Cleveland was saved by the reserves, who overcame an eight-point deficit entering the fourth quarter. Leaf, Jefferson, Wilkins, Domas Sabonis, Cory Joseph and Lance Stephenson played out the game from there and dominated the Cavs’ reserves.
“The last game we got a little too complacent,” Turner said. “We got a little too high on ourselves after the win in Milwaukee. We were feeling good. Cleveland brought us back down to earth. We know we still have a lot of challenges to face this season.”
Not Yet Conditioned to Win
The Pacers won’t be able to play the tempo they desire without being in superlative condition. They haven’t reached that point yet, as was obvious in their slow start in Cleveland, but McMillan is working on that –making his players work on it, actually.
“It’s been an emphasis every single day,” he said. “We’re not in the shape we need to be, but they’re’ working. November, December, we want to be great shape to play the style of basketball we need to play.
“We want to be in the best shape in the world. We’re a small group so we’re going to have to use our energy and our quickness to overcome that lack of size. You’ve got to be in great shape to play that way.”
Jefferson’s Time Coming
Most of the conversation surrounding Jefferson in training camp has been about his weight, or lack thereof. He dropped 40 pounds from his weight at the start of last season, and about 20 from his weight at the end of the season.
Monday’s game in Detroit will be his first real opportunity to display the impact of his reduction. He played 10 minutes in the win at Milwaukee without taking a shot, but grabbed three rebounds. He played eight minutes at Cleveland, hitting his only shot and getting three more rebounds.
He’ll start and get an extended opportunity against the Pistons.
“He’s been good,” McMillan said. “He hasn’t gotten a lot of minutes because he’s the third center (behind Turner and Sabonis). “Tomorrow we’ll let him show it.”
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