Darren Collison's one-word description of the Pacers' practice on Tuesday wasn't pulled from the NBA's cliché' handbook, but still accomplished its mission.
As in, "Practice was a little more jivy today."
He was talking about the ripple effect of Sunday's 124-88 victory over Denver that snuffed out a four-game losing streak and lifted the mood for the Pacers' final eight games as they try to maintain a position that brings homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs. There had been a concerted effort at practice on Saturday to display a positive outlook in the wake of the winless road trip through the Western Conference, but the dominant win over one of the West's best teams meant they won't have to manufacture another one as they head out for two more crucial road games.
"It was fun," Collison said of Tuesday's light workout at St. Vincent Center, which followed a day off. "Guys got a pep in their step. When you come off a win it's natural you're upbeat. When you're losing nothing feels good. Today was a good feeling."
Collison has a good feeling he'll be able to play again in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, ending a three-game absence because of the quad contusion he suffered against Portland. That will give the Pacers a fully healthy roster with the notable exception of Victor Oladipo, who was lost for the season on Jan. 23. The Pacers have adapted about as well as can be expected to the loss of their only All-Star from last season, and while they've had a recent run of short-term injuries to Collison, Myles Turner, Domas Sabonis and Tyreke Evans, they've been reasonably trouble-free.
Besides, they won't get any sympathy from this weeks' road foes, OKC and Boston. They have enough problems of their own to work out as they try to regain momentum toward the finish line. The Thunder haven't been the same since they blew a 19-point lead over the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 14.
They've since lost five of six games and dropped to eighth in the Western Conference standings. They are in no logical danger of falling out of the playoff picture, but are just one game back of fifth place. Wednesday's game initiates a five-game homestand that offers a friendly place to avenge the loss to the Pacers and reverse their momentum.
Boston, two games back of the Pacers in the East, has lost four consecutive games, including Sunday's 29-point homecourt loss to San Antonio. That defeat resulted in a postgame meeting with coaches and players and another players-only session. Coach Brad Stevens is contemplating changing his starting lineup to address the team's defensive problems, but the Celtics players – just as the Pacers were following their four-game losing streak – are professing optimism.
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"Winning's hard," Kyrie Irving said. "Team environments are hard. It's not as simple as just listening to everybody else speak about what's going on with our team. It's hard being a professional athlete."
He's right, and that's where the Pacers hope to gain an edge. Their team environment happens to be special according to the veterans who have been around long enough to experience the gamut of locker room atmospheres. While they might lack the star power found in the OKC and Celtic locker rooms, they have remained competitive thanks in part to intangibles such as players accepting roles, buying into the demands on defense and striving to be unselfish on offense.
Sunday's victory over the Nuggets included a strong defensive effort that allowed just 88 points to a team that averages 111 and an offensive showing that featured 34 assists and, according to McMillan, six or seven possessions that included at least six passes.
The chemistry is more outwardly evident during games in the way players on the bench stand and support those in the game and often go to extreme lengths to celebrate their successes, as well as the ease with which they all interact, clique-free, at the end of practice while shooting.
Coach Nate McMillan says the only gripes he hears from players are when they don't want to be taken out of a game, but those aren't frequent. Captain Thad Young even went the other direction two weeks ago against the Thunder when he asked to stay on the bench because those in the game "had it rolling."
Those kind of things matter over the course of 82 games, when seeds of internal conflict can sprout into foot-tangling weeds.
"Every now and then you're going to have some egos bumping into each other. But we're able to manage our egos and go out there and compete," Collison said.
McMillan offered Thad Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Cory Joseph the opportunity to sit out a game or two down the stretch last Saturday to ward off fatigue, but they declined without hesitation. The Pacers will proceed as usual until they lock up the fourth seed in the East with a 9 ½-man rotation that parcels some minutes to TJ Leaf but leaves Kyle O'Quinn and Aaron Holiday out of the rotation unless fouls, injuries or a lopsided score allow them in.
That's part of chemistry, too. Leaf, O'Quinn and Holiday have proved themselves capable of contributing at various points of the season, and McMillan has been tempted to stretch the rotation and work them in to reduce the workload for some of the starters. But he's decided to go all in for homecourt advantage, and they have accepted their fate.
"You can't play 12 guys. It's difficult to play 10," McMillan said. "When you're having success, it makes it a little easier to explain that to them."
In the long run, jivy matters. The Pacers will soon find out how far it can take them.
Source: Indiana Pacers | Mark Montieth