For The Tribune
Nine games remain in the Indiana Pacers’ regular season, and an Eastern Conference playoff berth is within reach.
It’s time to be clutch, a term president Larry Bird knows something about.
He is reveling in the good moments and wincing at the bad, and he has witnessed an abundance of both since the 2015-16 season began in late October.
Swingman Paul George has been impressive in his return after missing the entire 2014-15 season after sustaining a devastating lower right leg injury during a scrimmage game preceding the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Rookie forward/center Myles Turner, taken 11th overall by Indiana in the 2015 NBA Draft, is emerging as a frontline force sooner than expected.
Unfortunately, only two of the players on the Pacers’ roster — George and guard Monta Ellis — have played in all 73 games. This speaks to Indiana’s struggles to remain healthy long enough to achieve any type of long-term continuity.
The Pacers’ longest winning streak of the regular season is six, which occurred in November and early December. The longest losing streak is three — on seven different occasions.
Equally as frustrating to Bird is the fact 22 of the team’s first 33 losses are by single-digits margins.
Bird recently sat down for a Q&A with the Daily Journal, a sister paper of The Tribune:
Q: Are you satisfied with the Pacers’ record at this point of the season, or did you feel the team would be better?
A: I thought they were going to win more games. We’re 1-8 in overtime games. We’ve lost a lot of games down the stretch by missing free throws or turning the ball over. We play well in spurts, but haven’t really put a long winning streak together. But there is enough talent here. I said before the year started we definitely should make the playoffs. Now we’re right there, but there are other teams real close.
Q: Where in your view has this team exceeded expectations?
A: The one thing I like about them is if someone gets injured we can put another guy in there and (he) seems to play pretty well. We’ve had our share, especially with our guards. What we have to do is keep plugging away. One thing I’m surprised at is Paul is playing as well as he’s played. He’s been up and down with his shot, but he’s been pretty healthy. He’s been banged up a little bit, but he hasn’t missed any games. Sitting out a year, that’s pretty tough to do, so I’m pretty surprised at that.
Q: What dimension do you feel newly acquired guard Ty Lawson gives this team that it previously didn’t possess?
A: We’ve never had what they call a true point guard. As far as getting the ball in the paint all the time and looking for shooters, we’ve never had that since (Jamaal) Tinsley was here (from 2001-09). It’s unfortunate (Lawson) got hurt in his first five minutes in his first game, but he’s worked his way back, and now all he’s got to do is get out there and play a little bit. Get in better shape and learn the players. If he can do that I think he’s going to be a value to us.
Q: Myles Turner turned out to be a heck of a pick at No. 11 last June, but he just turned 20 less than a week ago. Where does he most need to improve during the off-season?
A: Believe me, the kid is a hard worker. He’ll be here all summer. He knows he’s got to get stronger, knows the things he needs to work on. But he gives it his all every day. Unfortunately, he got hurt and was out six weeks with his thumb, but, you know, that stuff happens. The thing with us early in the season is we wanted to go small, but when you have a kid like Myles who every day in practice shows he’s getting better and better, you’ve got to play him. We made a decision to play him and we’re going to live with it.
Q: Only two of the players on your roster have been in every game so far this season. Has on-court chemistry suffered as a result of this?
A: Well, I hate to say chemistry because this is one of the better groups of guys we’ve ever had here. When you talk chemistry you’re talking about on the court. I think they get along well. The one thing that I see is they’re not in rhythm like I would like them to be, especially during games when we’re trying to run our plays and they miss picks sometimes and they miss backdoor cuts. Overall, I think they’re the type of team that will continue to work together. And if they stay healthy I think they’ll get through a lot of that.
Q: Twenty-two of your first 33 losses were by single-digit point spreads. Is that something that gnaws at you or is that just life in the NBA?
A: It kills me because a lot of it’s our own fault. Missed free throws, turnovers at a crucial part of the game and broken plays. There have been times when we haven’t been able to get the ball in-bounds. It seems like you could overcome that, but sometimes that’s the makeup of the players. Somebody’s got to take it upon themselves, a few guys, and make sure things don’t happen. But we are who we are, and right now we’re bunched up for the seventh, eighth spot in the playoffs, and we definitely want to make the playoffs.
Q: Your whole adult life has been basketball. How fortunate do you consider yourself?
A: Unbelievable. Never dreamed this. My only goal once I started playing basketball and really liked it was just to be a starter on my high school team, and that’s what this has led to. I’m very fortunate because I did coaching for three years. That’s all I wanted to do it. And it was just to see the other side of the game. As a player I had always seen it, but as a coach I saw it different. Then as I got into the front office, you know it’s a full circle. I’ve been fortunate and blessed. Every day my day is whether I win or lose a game. It hasn’t changed. I always tell the players that I hope when we lose a game they feel as bad as I do because it hurts. And it still hurts. If it didn’t I wouldn’t be doing it. Being around this my whole life, it’s been incredible.
The Indiana Pacers still have business to tend to if they’re going to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Here are Indiana’s final nine regular-season games:
Tuesday – Chicago, 7 p.m.
Thursday – Orlando, 7 p.m.
Saturday – at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday – at New York, 7:30 p.m.
April 6 – Cleveland, 7 p.m.
April 8 – at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.
April 10 – Brooklyn, 6 p.m.
April 12 – New York, 7 p.m.
April 13 – at Milwaukee, 8 p.m.