The note in red in the bottom-left corner of Portland’s locker room Friday night sent a reminder about consistency, as a trait of successful teams. The Blazers, after all, had won their season-opener in Phoenix by 48 points and could have been susceptible to a reality-checking letdown.
They heeded the warning, delivering a 114-96 victory over Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that forwarded the message to the Pacers, who didn’t offer a fitting sequel to their season-opening victory.
After scoring 140 points against Brooklyn on Wednesday, the Pacers fell short in both the execution and accuracy of their halfcourt offense. The absence of Myles Turner was clearly a factor, and perhaps made the thought of a victory over the Blazers beyond the realm of reasonable expectations. But Turner’s absence had nothing to do with his teammates’ poor shot selection and poor shooting.
Coach Nate McMillan’s ambition for his team is to score 110 points per game and get up at least 90 shots. It scored 96 in this one, on just 78 field goal attempts. It compensated for that with 33 free throw attempts, but hit just 22 of them. It failed to compensate for that by hitting just 4-of-18 3-point attempts.
The Pacers hit better than half of their two-point field attempts, but weren’t going to beat a focused team as good as the Blazers on that kind of diet.
“I thought we took some bad shots because we didn’t have the movement we wanted,” McMillan said.
“We just didn’t have that rhythm that we want to play with.”
Turner missed the game because of a concussion suffered late in Wednesday’s victory, when DeMarre Carroll caught him with a shoulder in the neck and chin on a screen. Turner will miss Saturday’s game in Miami as well, but the injury is regarded as more mild than serious. Turner participated in Thursday’s light practice session and wasn’t declared out until Friday afternoon. Most of his teammates learned of his absence when they arrived at The Fieldhouse for the game.
Second-year forward Domantas Sabonis moved into the starting lineup in his place, but came out of the game looking like the loser of a catfight. After showing promise throughout training camp and in the season-opener, Sabonis finished with just three points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field and 1-of-4 shooting from the foul line in 29 minutes. He had three red streaks on the right side of his face after being clawed by a Blazer whose fingernails need trimming after grabbing an offensive rebound midway through the first quarter.
Sabonis, who lost a contact lens in the scuffle, was examined by Pacers opthalmologist Dr. John Abrams and returned midway through the second period. The Pacers, though, needed more from him than the 29 minutes he played, and needed Turner as well. They were outrebounded 51-39 and scored just eight second-chance points.
Sabonis suffered no damage to his eye, and saw the game clearly in his analysis as well.
“We weren’t getting the shots we wanted and we were shooting too quick,” he said.
“Coach always tells us, play quick or play long.”
In other words, get the ball upcourt in transition, but if you don’t get a good shot immediately, move the ball and work for one. The Pacers lacked patience, putting up too many long two-pointers or rushing into the foul lane and tossing up defended floaters.
Victor Oladipo was one of the guilty parties, hitting just 5-of-17 shots. Lance Stephenson and Cory Joseph weren’t blameless either, each hitting 1-of-5. That’s a combined 7-of-27 from three guards who are old enough to know better and good enough to do better.
“Offensively we don’t go through our plays,” said Thaddeus Young, who was his usual solid self with eight points on 4-of-8 shooting and seven rebounds.
“We never got into a good flow. The team chemistry is there, we were trying, but some nights you’re not going to get into a good flow. We have to move the ball a little more.”
Oladipo’s performance was a departure from a solid preseason and opening game performance, but Stephenson has continued a puzzling trend. He had parachuted into last season, playing the final six regular season games and five playoff games. He hit 5-of-8 3-point shots then, despite playing with a sore ankle and knee, providing a gigantic lift off the bench. He hit just 29 percent of his 3-point attempts in three preseason games, however, and has hit just 2-of-11 in the regular season.
“I’m just missing shots I normally make, and I’m going to keep taking them,” he said. I’ve just got to keep going hard and not put my head down.
“I’m going to get it going. I’m going to get it going.”
Stephenson pointed out the best excuse for the Pacers’ discombobulated offense: lack of familiarity. The Pacers have 10 new players on their roster, and Turner’s absence made
for four new starters. The shortened preseason, which included four exhibition games instead of eight, hasn’t helped, either.
“We’re going to get used to each other,” Stephenson said. “It’s still early.”
Not too early, perhaps, to be intrigued by the play of rookie forward TJ Leaf. The 20-year-old who looks more like 16 shot off some fireworks by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter of a preseason game in Detroit. He went scoreless in a 10-minute cameo appearance on Wednesday, but got some trickle-down minutes from Turner’s absence on Friday and responded with 17 points in 19 1/2 minutes. He hit 7-of-11 shots, including 2-of-3 3-pointers, showed moxie around the basket, and didn’t commit a turnover.
Leaf’s best sequence came early in the second quarter. He opened the period with a driving layup. Moments later, he hit an 18-footer in transition, a quick and confident shot off a feed from Joseph. He followed by muscling with Portland’s own first-round pick, former Purdue star Caleb Swanigan, underneath the basket and drawing a charging foul, and followed that by hitting a 3-pointer on another feed from Joseph.
The Pacers trailed just 38-37 at the time, but never got closer.
Leaf, at 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, is a tweener for now, not yet strong enough to battle the bruisers around the basket and not yet quick enough to stay with the burners on the perimeter. But he can do enough damage offensively to hold his own, and seems to have the mental acumen to catch on quickly to the nuances of NBA defense.
“There’s a lot of talent out there, that’s for sure,” he said.
“The court is more spread. For a rookie, it’s hard to anticipate the spacing sometimes.”
He has a sense of humor, too. Before the Pacers took off for Miami, he tweeted out an admission from a play early in the fourth quarter, when he found himself isolated on an island on the right wing with Blazers guard C.J. McCollum and gave up a layup.
“This dude CJ crossed me into another dimension,” he wrote.
It won’t be the last time. But it won’t be the last time he scores 17 points or more, either.
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