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'It’s all very different': Pacers leave Cleveland upbeat after two losses in exhibition play
Stylistically, they played differently. That includes 84 3-point attempts in two games.
Less than 10 days into training camp, the Pacers traveled to Cleveland for a pair of preseason games as they gear up for a shortened 72-game season. Although they lost both games, the first ones played outside of the Orlando bubble, they will be returning without any serious injuries. That’s always most important.
The Cleveland Cavaliers beat them by three points on Saturday and again Monday night, 116-106. The Pacers should be discouraged that they blew a 20-point first quarter lead after sprinting ahead 26-6, and how didn’t get much from their bench. But they expect for that to come in time, especially once key players return to the rotation.
Domantas Sabonis led the Pacers with 18 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes, and was their only center in uniform. Goga Bitadze didn’t play in the pair of games because of a right ankle sprain.
He’s missed out on a ton of growth opportunities — 0 for 2 on playing in summer league, limited in training camps and now missing preseason games. These are valuable games for Bitadze, 21, to get reps and build his confidence on this level.
Second-year center Amida Brimah didn’t travel and Myles Turner was a last-minute scratch. Bjorkgren got word from the trainer about 20 minutes before tip-off, even after he had given his pre-game talk to the team inside Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. With Turner out, Bjorkgren chose to play a smaller lineup and replaced him with Aaron Holiday.
“I like the way he runs the floor,” Bjorkgren said of Holiday, who had 16 points and hit four of five 3s. "In camp, he was very competitive … and he’s shown us a lot. His teammates really playing with him too.”
It was an unfamiliar sight that better start becoming familiar. Six of their first eight field goals were 3-pointers and by the time Bjorkgren made his first substitutions, all five starters had hit at least one.
They’re averaging 42 attempts per game, an extreme increase from their league-worst 28.0 per-game average last season.
“I like the number where we’ve been at over the last two games,” Bjorkgren said. “We’re at 80-plus, approaching 90. Those are good numbers and they’re good shots. I don’t put a goal on it, but if they’re good ones, we’ll keep firing away.”
The Pacers had good ball movement when the starters were in there and assisted on 26 of 41 field goals. As promised, they tried to push it on every opportunity and on multiple occasions, Sabonis hurried it up the floor.
“On offense, we’re running different things,” he said. “Our motion is different, everybody has their different spaces. We still haven’t really done what exactly we have been working on in practice. We’re struggling a bit on that part on the offensive end.”
The Pacers haven’t spent a lot of time in practice on the offensive end. That will come and there’s an existing chemistry carrying over with the rotational players. Despite the losses, Sabonis was unusually upbeat after the game.
“We’ve been practicing, trying a lot of new things out,” he continued. “It’s all very different and nobody likes change. So it was nice to finally come out there, try these new things out and see that they actually work.
“I think everybody’s excited and everyone I have talked to is having a lot of fun. We just want to keep trying to improve and catch on to this new system as quick as possible because everybody loves it.”
Players being out — including starter T.J. Warren, who is week-to-week due to plantar fasciitis — opened up an opportunity for others like Kelan Martin, Edmond Sumner and Jalen Lecque. They all played in the fourth quarter. and had good moments, but the bench, as a group, failed to hold their own. To make matters worse, Doug McDermott exited the game in the first quarter with a knee bruise and did not return.
The Pacers forced 24 turnovers, but the Cavs still managed to shoot better than 51 percent. And rebounding remains an issue.
“We need to get better on the glass,” Bjorkgren said. We talked about that throughout the game. It’s a huge category so we’ve got to be more physical, we got to hit more bodies. I also learned a lot about the effort our team is going to play with.”
There’s going to be a learning curve and even if he doesn’t want to admit it, a shortened camp and preseason negatively impacts Bjorkgren, one of four first-year head coaches. They’ve shown glimpses of what they’re trying to accomplished and still have a ways to go.
“We’re just simplifying it right now,” said Victor Oladipo, who finished with nine points. “I know he’s still got a whole bag of tricks that he hasn't really brought out because it is preseason.”
The Pacers complete their preseason Friday at home against the 76ers.
A new normal, a new routine
No longer in a bubble, there are more than 100 pages of protocols and instructions for teams to follow. So perhaps by design, the Pacers agreed to go over to Cleveland in the preseason to experience their new reality.
There, they stay at The Ritz-Carlton — which is just a five-minute walk over to the arena and it’s all indoors, if they’d like. There’s mandatory testing each morning and players didn’t leave for dinner, it was provided for them.
“In Cleveland, it was kind of the same weekend as it’s been every year,” Sabonis said with a smirk. “Maybe in a different city, we probably would’ve gone out with the team to go eat somewhere else.
“There’s just a lot of different rules. We got to wake up early, get tested, wait until we’re cleared before we go out, lift, stretch, do anything we want. And then we just got to be safe, we got to keep washing our hands.”
Bjorkgren is following the lead of the team’s medical staff, but it has required them to allot more time for basic tasks.
“I think it’s good for our first game here in the preseason to be on the road,” he said, “a little bit slower time getting through the hotels. Our guys did a very nice job of being as safe as they could and everywhere I looked, our guys had their masks on and were following their safety rules. It’s important.”
All staffers wore masks, as did most players on the socially-distanced bench. No fans will be at games for the time being.
“As we get used to it, I think guys will figure their routines out and it will become the norm for everyone,” Oladipo said. “For the most part, it really wasn’t that bad. If we want to play the game that we love at the highest level, we’ve got to make that adjustment. So we’re making it.”