McDermott, Bitadze return to practice as Pacers continue to install new system
Two preseason games down, one to go.
The Pacers hit the practice floor Wednesday after taking the previous day off. It was their ninth practice of the shortened preseason and just one week before opening night, Dec. 23 against the Knicks.
They’ve had a couple days to review the film of preseason games 1 in 2, both losses in Cleveland. They were outrebounded by double digits in both games, turned it over a combined 37 times and allowed the Cavaliers to shoot 50 percent from the field.
“We have a ways to go, this is all a process,” said forward Justin Holiday, who re-signed on a three-year deal. “… I do like how hard we are playing, I think that’s a good thing, but we have to clean up a lot of stuff. I think we’re going just fine and we’re moving in the right direction.”
It’s far too early to make any conclusions other than it’s going to take time. That’s to be expected. Despite having remarkable continuity, with the top 13 players in the rotation returning, they’re led by a new coach and implementing a new system for the first time in a decade.
“The first thing is trying to learn everything with our team, learning everything that coach wants us to do,” Holiday said of his preseason goals. “Personally, just getting myself ready to play games. … And also with me is helping to lead and teach the younger guys, shoot, the new offense and everything about NBA basketball and this life.”
The focus to this point has been on the defensive end. Last season, they ranked sixth in defensive and third in points yielded. But Dan Burke did not return as defensive coordinator and already we’ve seen that side of the floor look differently.
Bjorkgren previously was part of the Raptors’ staff and their less-predictable defense ranked second — only behind the Bucks.
“… In training camp, I think he just wants us to play the right way,” Doug McDermott said of Bjorkgren. “There’s been a lot more emphasis on defense I would say so far and the offense is starting to slowly get put in and we’re starting to learn some new things.”
Many of the new guys — like Kelan Martin, Cassius Stanley and Jalen Lecque — have been given good opportunities in each of the first two games. They’re finishing the game, playing about 12 minutes to get a feel for games and competition at this level.
They also experienced the first snowfall of the year in Indy.
“Snow and I don’t get along,” Stanley said on Instagram. “This snow is not for me.”
Center Goga Bitadze participated in practice after suffering an ankle injury and missing both tune-up games. He had few opportunities to contribute last season in his rookie year. There’s two quality centers ahead of him and battled ongoing knee soreness even through the offseason.
In his limited opportunities, Bitadze lacked confidence in what he was doing — not a huge surprise, he was a rookie — and he must now quickly grasp a new system, which should open him up for 3-point tries. More than anything, he just needs reps. Reps against competition, something he didn’t get much of last season or in the summer.
“He needs that,” Bjorkgren confirmed.
Myles Turner was at the practice facility, but did not practice after coming down with an illness Monday night that kept him from playing. And on a positive front, McDermott does not seem concerned after leaving that exhibition game early due to a bruised knee.
“It’s feeling good,” he said. “It was one of those deals where I had a bruise on my knee from a previous practice and I got hit on the exact same spot. It probably looked worse than it actually was. … Just fortunate that the swelling went down and I’m able to play now.”
Lastly, T.J. Warren continues to miss time as he manages plantar fasciitis. He is able to get light work in, but nothing with the team for a week now.
“He wants to play really bad,” said Bjorkgren, who coached him in Phoenix. “Like really, really bad. I love him. But not yet.”
The season hasn’t even started and I’m already having to do a run-down of injuries. Let’s hope that fades away soon.
The talk about the Pacers’ 3-point shooting isn’t going anywhere, though. It was at the center of our Zoom calls with members of the team on Wednesday. Players agree that they can’t force it and say it should be a frequent option to come from their spacing, drives and ball movement.
“At the end of the day, spacing is very, very important,” Holiday said. “We saw in playoffs, at times, because we didn’t have certain cuts from certain spots, we weren’t spaced the way we needed to be and should have been, and it was hard to score at times with a team that was packing it in like Miami did.”
Before their final exhibition game, on Friday against the 76ers, the Pacers will practice over at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday. Yes, it’s the first time for the coaching staff, but it’s also important for the players to see the new setup. New sight lines, gray instead of green seating in the locker bowl, different bench seating and a new giant video board hanging above.
“(Thursday) will be my first time over there as Pacer myself,” Bjorkgren said, “so it will be good to get on the main court with the bright lights and go through a little bit of a practice there.”
(Note: The league announced late Wednesday that of the 549 players tested for COVID-19 since Dec. 10, one new player has returned a confirmed positive test. That’s a strong improvement after 48 players returned positive tests during the first week of testing Nov. 24 - Dec. 1.)