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The Indiana Pacers are in unfamiliar territory with their best player. Tyrese Haliburton didn’t miss one game last season after being acquired in a mid-season trade. Like Buddy Hield, who was part of the the deal, Haliburton had been available every night and hates missing games. Even practices, too.

It got to the point where even if he was on the injury report before a game, you knew he was going to play. Just like with Domantas Sabonis before him.

The team’s surprisingly strong start — a 23-18 record — was derailed on Jan. 11 when Haliburton landed awkwardly after contact at the basket in New York. He left Madison Square Garden on a crutch and is now missing time with a left elbow sprain and bone bruise in his left knee.

Before he went down, the Pacers had won 8 of 10 games and were sixth in the conference standings. Since, they’ve lost seven in a row and are now ninth.

He’s due to be re-evaluated this week and is hoping to return in early February, before the All-Star break, but it depends on how quickly his elbow sprain heals. His knee is feeling much better and so he’s participating in parts of practices. And after practice on Monday, he nailed 23 of 25 3-pointers to earn the right to go ring the bell.

On his walk back, he made sure Big Brother Buddy Hield, who was talking with us reporters at the time, was aware. They have their ongoing friendly feuds. Many.

“It doesn’t matter if you get 23,” Hield shouted at Haliburton. “Fix the other arm. Maybe you’ll get 25.”

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See, even if Haliburton cannot play, it makes a big difference if he’s around the team. He sits next toward the front of the bench, next to the coaches, and he is frequently coaching up his teammates — during the game and stoppages.

The vibe is different when the leader and engine of the team is around.

He did not attend their game in Oklahoma City and the team looked disconnected and dejected as the Thunder carved them up. Having him around — playing or not — is a huge positive.

As if we needed further proof of his value to this organization in such a short time, the team’s performances without their leader, and the NBA’s assist leader, should be all head coaches need to see to vote him into the All-Star game.

(Note: Coaches vote for the reserves.)

“I knew he was a great player, but having him unavailable for seven games … and losing seven games is pretty strong evident how important he is to our franchise,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “Now, that said, we have plenty without him being available to win games. But we’ve got to be really tied together, we’ve got to be on point with everything that we’re doing and we got to go hard.”

Sunday was a travel day for the team after they remained in Phoenix overnight following their loss to the Suns on Saturday. So on Monday, they returned to the practice courts at the St. Vincent Center determined to make progress as a group ahead of playing three games on four nights this week.

The coaches aimed to keep the message simple and emphasized communication.

“Part of what we did today was redefine who we are as a team, who we need to be as a team,” Carlisle said.

It’s not easy navigating without Haliburton, who sets the tone offensively and distributes the ball as well as anyone in the league. But this is their current reality.

“He leads the league in assists and is someone who really ties us together,” said Myles Turner, a Pacer since 2015. “Just his vision and whatnot is missing. It’s not about Tyrese being out; it is what it is. Guys get injured so it’s the next-man-up mentality.”

It was fitting that Monday was veteran’s day of a different sort. The three players we talked to — Hield, Turner and McConnell — all with at least seven years of experience in the NBA and have been part of the highs and lows of a season. They’ve dealt with team injuries, internal turmoil, coaching changes and much more.

“Stay positive and weather the storm,” said Hield. “As bad as it looks, it’s not really bad. Like coach always preach, our superpower is being together.”

They talked through areas they did poorly against a undermanned Suns team that could easily be cleaned up. They highlighted ball security and spacing, both items that can help minimize turnovers. And the messaging reinforced how they have to work together, as a collective.

“We got to keep working at understanding that our overall game is very dependent on how we function with each other,” Carlisle said. “Right now, with Tyrese out, we’ve really got to help each other in every way, whether it’s defending the ball, whether it’s creating the best shot for the team. You name it, we got to be a total team.

The offense has sputtered, too, over the last two weeks. Turnovers are up. And three of their worst offensive nights have been with Haliburton in street clothes, including their 37.5 shooting percentage Saturday at Phoenix.

They have also been outscored in the first quarter in all but one game over the last six games; by nearly nine points per game.

T.J. McConnell joined the starting lineup for the first time this season before they faced the Suns. He’s a jolt of energy off the bench, someone who plays unselfishly, looks for the pass first, and epitome of a role player. He knows what he does well and doesn’t stray outside of that.

“Trying to give one-third of what Tyrese would do to this unit, but try to remain myself,” he said.

“I know I’m not going to be who Tyrese is — he’s an All-Star-caliber point guard and as you see, we miss him dearly. I’m just trying to be myself, pushing the pace on offense and getting people involved, shooting when I’m open and being a pest on defense.”

There were obvious improvements offensively with McConnell starting. They jumped ahead 10-3, though they couldn’t sustain it. He made a point to seek out Hield and get him going, just as Haliburton does. Hield made five 3s and finished with 22 points after going without a 3-pointer in two games over the last week.

McConnell, by the way, is quietly putting together his most efficient season yet thanks to the work he continues to put in with assistant coach Jenny Boucek on his shooting. That’s an every day thing; after practice, before games, etc.

Turner mentioned it so it’s likely the whole team is aware of how McConnell is currently having a 50-40-90 season. McConnell is shooting 50.6% from the field, 42.9% from distance and 91.4% from the foul line. Like a player on a hot shooting stretch, it’s something they don’t want to talk about it; that was case here in 2018 with guard Darren Collison.

However, it’s not sustainable for him to play 40 minutes per game — double his typical workload — like he did in Phoenix, which led to his third career triple-double (18-10-12). However, it meant he also pressured less from full court, which is one of his best skills, and looked gassed at certain moments.

“It’s important when you’re going through a tough time to make sure you have your best competitors on the floor as much as possible,” Carlisle said. “And to make sure we’re doing everything possible to create an entire roster full of great competitors. That’s what we are.”

That goes back to redefining who they are as a group and what they want to be.

“We don’t take our success for granted,” Turner added. “We know how hard it was for us to build that and that’s all we’re trying to get back to.”

It begins with hard play, something several of them repeated, and on the defensive end. They’re not too concerned with the offense and believe that will come and be improved as a result of their defensive play.

Over the last six games, they’re 30th in opponent 3-point field goals (15.4) and fast break points (19 per game), and 29th in opponent points off turnovers (21.2).

And on the road trip, losing all four games, they yielded an average of 126 points per game. And that included games where there Bucks sat Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Nuggets were without two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the Suns were down Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton.

“I feel like once we establish our identity defensively, the offense takes care of itself,” McConnell said. “We can get what we want on offense, but we’re so dangerous when we get stops and get out in the open floor.”

Next up on the schedule is the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. They’ll be coming in with little rest having hosted the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.

For the Pacers, it’s the first night of a back-to-back and their next chance to turn it around. All while entering the dog days of the season — the few weeks before All-Star break (Feb. 16).

“Getting the next win is going to be challenging,” Carlisle told reporters after their loss in Phoenix. “That’s how it is in this league. It’s never easy.”


Of Note

  • Guard Andrew Nembard was not at practice due to a non-Covid illness. He started feeling under the weather late last week and was on the injury report in Phoenix. He played, but did not look 100%.
  • Kendall Brown did not finish the road trip with the Pacers. Instead he flew back to Indiana on Saturday so he could play with the Mad Ants on Sunday. In his first game in six weeks due to a stress reaction in his right tibia, Brown started and recorded six points and two rebounds in 15 minutes — all in the first half.
  • Center Daniel Theis is continuing to progress and is getting closer to contributing in a game. Wearing a green jersey, he played 5-on-0 after practice with James Johnson, Terry Taylor, Trevelin Queen and assistant coach Jannero Pargo as coaches Mike Weinar and Zach Chu looked on.

Scott Agness is in his 11th season as a beat writer covering the Indiana Pacers. Click here to read more of his work at FieldhouseFiles.com.