FIrst of all, the Indiana Pacers lost their preseason opener against the Chicago Bulls, 82-76. It was the Pacers first game since bowing out against the Miami Heat in game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals and probably the most hyped preseason game ever — primaroly because of the return of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, and to a lesser extent the long-awaited return of Danny Granger following his unsuccessful, injury-plagued 2012-2013 season. Plus both teams are expected to contend, or at least provide a stern test to the two-time defending champs, the Miami Heat, so it was no wonder people were treating it with the importance of something much greater.
Let's take a deep breath, and a step back. After all, this is a preseason game, one that means absolutely nothing in the scheme of things. Even teams that appear to be on fire in March can fizzle out come April or May, so I'd rather the Pacers suck now than then. That said, the Pacers did not suck in the loss. Overexcited, perhaps, fatigued, probably (they just had 8 practices in 5 days), and definitely rusty. On the whole, there were a lot of positives and promising things I saw in the game which makes me optimistic about the upcoming season. Here are my observations and thoughts.
- Paul George looked really impressive despite fouling out (in a preseason game!). He was rusty early with only 2 points in the first half but scored 10 in the third quarter as the Pacers took a 10-point lead, their biggest of the game. He finished with 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a block and a steal in just 18 minutes. What stood out the most for me was his confidence, especially with his jumpshot. He looks ready to take the next step towards NBA superstardom. We all said he's great-but-not-quite-there-yet at the end of the playoffs, but if this game is any indication it appears he has taken a big stride in the right direction.
- Roy Hibbert was also fantastic. He shot poorly (4-14) but finished with 11 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 27 minutes. Like PG24, Hibbert looked supremely confident and wasn't afraid to bump and grind and contest shots all over the place with his newly-sculpted body (which has apparently risen to a mammoth 290 pounds). He also looked like he was really enjoying himself out there.
- David West, being 33 and all, probably did more maintenance than heavy lifting in the offseason. It showed a little as he made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes and was a little rusty in the beginning, but this is David West we're talking about and he still finished the game as the team's most reliable and consistent player. He had solid all-round impact with 14 points (6-13 shooting), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and a block.
- For me, George Hill was perhaps the most impressive of the starters. His numbers don't show it — he had 8 points on 3-10 shooting on 28 minutes — but he was a vocal leader on the floor and had 6 assists, which is pretty high for him. It looks like he's starting to become a point guard in this Pacers system, someone who doesn't have to rack up a lot of assists but knows how to coordinate the team's free-flowing offense. A couple of plays stood out for me — one was his athletic block of Jimmy Butler's jumshot and finishing with a contested fast break layup at the other end (was probably fouled too), and the other was when he missed a three (arguably fouled too), but the ball was batted around and ended up in his hands again, and he fired again without hestitation and sunk it beautifully.
- Lance Stephenson looked fit and sharp out there, even though he kind of took a back seat in terms of his offense and only took 2 shots, finishing with 5 points, 4 rebounds and an assist in 25 minutes. I did like his energy and his defense, which looks to have improved again. I like that he didn't force things and tried to contribute in ways other than just scoring, though I wish he would have pushed the tempo a little more.
- The Pacers' starting 5 was strong tonight, and I'd be confident about this squad going up against any other starting 5 in the league. The offense is still a work in progress but last year's no. 1 defense remains just as suffocating. That run they went on in the third quarter shows just how good they can be when all cylinders are clicking. The concern, as always, is with the bench, which I'll get to below.
- The Pacers' bench last season was horrendous, but we didn't really accept this until well into the season. I remember this time last year when we were saying how the bench was an improvement on the previous season and had plenty of potential to be great. We're saying the same thing this year, but this first game was not pretty for the new-look Pacers bench.
- A lot of attention of Danny Granger's return tonight — many remained skeptical that he would ever be the same, while others were excited because of the rave reports he was receiving out of training camp. He ended playing a team-high 29 minutes (putting up 6 points on 2-10 shooting) but was very rusty and looked a little lost out there at times at both ends of the floor (he was often slow on the switch), which is not surprising given that he has played less games than I have fingers since the 2011-2012 playoffs (including preseason). I'm not too concerned because Granger is admittedly not quite there yet. Derrick Rose (who had 13 points on 5-12 shooting and 4 turnovers in 20 minutes) has been basically 100% healthy, physically, for about 6 months, whereas Granger is still skipping the occasional practice to ease his knee back into the swing of things (plus he tweaked his back a few days ago in camp). Granger said himself that he is aiming to get his conditioning honed and legs back about midway through 8 preseason games. Throw in the fact that he's a notorious slow starter, and I think this means we won't see a full-strength Granger (mentally and physically) until at least a couple of weeks into the regular season. So the verdict on Granger now remains inconclusive.
- The biggest addition this offseason for the Pacers was of course backup PF Luis Scola, who looked like he was still trying to find his groove with the new team. Still, he showed some nice touches around the basket, and even though the shots didn't go down, he did finish with 7 points and 3 rebounds in 21 minutes. He is the biggest reason why I am a lot more confident about the Pacers bench this season. The Pacers teams over the last few years have never had a backup of his caliber, and even at his worst Scola is still an upgrade over Tyler Hansbrough (no offense — I love Tyler but it's just a fact).
- I was as surprised as anyone to see rookie Solomon Hill play 21 minutes, the most of any bench player not named Danny Granger. I had read good things about Hill and how he might be able to contribute right away, but the rookie jitters were clear for everyone to see when he recorded an awkward travel and blew a breakaway dunk during the game. He had 2 points on 1-5 shooting but added 2 rebounds, an assists and 2 steals. Maybe he's getting more minutes because it's the preseason and coach Frank Vogel knows Hill won't get much burn in the regular season.
- New backup PG CJ Watson also looked a little tentative out there in 17 minutes of play (he hit a three pointer and had 2 turnovers against an assist) but his defensive was pretty solid and he looked more composed than DJ Augustin did most of last season. He'll get better too.
- Ian Mahinmi was the only other "rotation' player for the Pacers tonight. He played 15 minutes and was not very good — 2 points, 4 rebounds, a block and 3 turnovers. Those hoping to see an improved Mahinmi this season might come away disappointed, though it would be unfair to jump to any conclusions after just one preseason game. He did get married in the offseason after all (congrats!).
- It wasn't surprising to see that the remaining 4 players who got court time only played 3 minutes each — except for Chris Copeland, one of the "big" signings of the offseason. Does this have anything to do with the minor knee surgery he had a couple of months ago, or is it a sign that he won't be getting as many minutes as we initially thought? Vogel did say just a day or two ago that Copeland would get 90% of his playing time at power forward this season (which could mean close to zero unless Luis Scola plays some center). I'd like to think there are good reasons why he barely played tonight and that maybe some of rookie Solomon Hill's minutes will eventually go to Copeland. He is too good of a three-point shooter to be left on the bench, even if his defense leaves a lot to be desired.
- By the way, the other guys who played were Hilton Armstrong, Donald Sloan and Orlando Johnson. Darnell Jackson, Rasual Butler and Ron Howard did not play (and most probably won't make the team anyway).
- I wouldn't read too much into the loss tonight. Yes, the Pacers were at home, but the Bulls were much more hyped up because of Rose's return. They played harder and were more disciplined than the Pacers, who trialed 6 new bench players tonight (7 if you include Granger). In all, it was a good effort against a great team, one they might meet in the playoffs 7-8 months down the track. Moving forward, I'd like to see the starting 5 get in sync a bit more, Danny Granger looking more like Danny Granger, and the rest of the bench being more assertive and finding their identity in the second unit.
Up next, the Pacers head to the Philippines to take on Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets on Oct. 10, then again in Taipei on Oct. 13. I'll be in Taipei to catch the game live courtside — it should be an amazing experience!