St. Croix’s Rakeem Christmas Sent To D-League Nov. 1 Because of A Glut of Talent on Pacers
By MARK MONTIETH/Special To The V.I. Free Press
INDIANAPOLIS – Frank Vogel has a mounting problem, one that threatens to keep him up nights and could, theoretically, infiltrate his locker room and do damage to his won-loss record. And he knows just who to blame for it.
“It’s Larry Bird’s fault, really,” Vogel was saying before the Pacers overwhelmed Milwaukee by 37 points on Saturday to improve to 8-5. “He gave me too many good players.”
Too many good players. Look up “good problem to have” in the dictionary and you might see a photo of the Pacers’ bench. It’s getting deeper and deeper, no matter how many players are removed from the roster for injury, illness or personal matters.
If Vogel was thinking – jokingly – that was a problem before the game, it only looked like a more glaring issue afterward. Despite the absence of starter George Hill, rotation player and first-round draft pick Myles Turner and promising second-round pick Joe Young, the Pacers’ bench scored 53 points in a 123-86 victory over the Bucks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Vogel, who has coached two teams that reached the Eastern Conference finals since taking over midway through the 2010-11 season, considers this his deepest team. And it just keeps getting deeper.
“Every time we go deep into our bench because of injuries, guys step up,” he said.
Saturday it was Jordan Hill, who hit 9-of-10 shots on his way to 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Glenn Robinson III, who hit 6-of-7 shots and all four 3-pointers on his way to 17 points, not to mention Lavoy Allen, Rodney Stuckey and Solomon Hill, who played the final five minutes and hit his first 3-pointer of the season.
So what happens when Hill comes back from his upper respiratory infection (probably Tuesday at Washington) and Turner recovers from his fractured left thumb (about a month from now)? And what about Young, who was unable to get back in time for Saturday’s game after going to Texas for a family matter, but sparkled in Summer League play and was thought to be a rotation player entering training camp?
Like Vogel says. It’s a good problem to have.
The reason it seems unlikely to become a real problem, the kind that would divide a locker room or subtract from the won-lost record, is that the players – no matter who’s playing – are working together so well without hints of complaint.
If Solomon Hill can accept going from leading the team in minutes played last season to playing the fewest minutes of all the guys not sent to the Fort Wayne Development League affiliate so far this season, who can complain?
The bubbling chemistry and camaraderie are showing in an offense that’s coming to life after a jittery start. It ranked 27th in scoring at the start of the week, then 24th after scoring 112 points at Philadelphia, on Wednesday and will rise again after Saturday’s onslaught.
Starters and reserves alike are looking for one another, passing to one another and not caring who scores.
Paul George, for example, had his streak of eight consecutive games of 26 or more points broken when he scored 20 on a 6-of-17 shooting night. He wasn’t bothered in the least, and in fact set the tone for the game by passing out a game-high seven assists, and adding seven rebounds.
“We’re just starting to get comfortable with the offense,” he said. “If something is not there, we move on to the next option. It goes next option to the next option. Eventually we’ll find something.
Coaches tell us just to keep attacking and something will be there.”
Come to think of it, George’s all-encompassing and selfless play likely is setting the tone for the entire season. Having missed all but six games last season with a broken leg, he came back hungrier than ever to assert himself. All of himself. After this latest win, he reiterated a point he first made after he recorded a triple-double in a playoff victory over Atlanta in 2013.
“I don’t want to just be considered a shooter,” he said Saturday. “At the end of the day, I’m a ballplayer.”
George’s ability to draw double-teams from the defense creates opportunities for teammates, setting in motion a style of play and mindset that spreads throughout the roster. One of the primary beneficiaries against the Bucks was C.J. Miles, who hit just 3-of-10 shots in the first half but 4-of-6 in the second to finish with a game-high 21 points. Chase Budinger (13 points while hitting 3-of-4 3-pointers) and Monta Ellis (12 points on 5-of-9 shooting) felt the ripple effects, too.
Miles says players have focused on helping George get back to being George again following his injury, which has led to him creating opportunities for other players, which is making for a good time to be had by all.
“There’s more movement, more space, more open guys,” Miles said.
“We need to be able to (get open), because one guy can’t guard him. He’s proven that over and over. He’s proven that with one leg.”
On two good legs, George now averages 24.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals. A Pacers player hasn’t had that well-rounded a season since George McGinnis in 1974-75.
“There’s a lot of stars out there who don’t want to do the dirty work,” Vogel said. “He loves playing a complete game. He loves defending, which makes him extremely unique, he loves rebounding, he loves being in the right spots on the weakside, pushing the tempo, sharing the ball. He stands for everything that wins. On top of that he has the ability to go for 30 every night. He’s a special player.”
Vogel continues to alternate back between a “big” lineup with two traditional frontline players and a smaller “spread” lineup. He isn’t favoring one over the other so far, and plans to continue using both. Besides, his big men are all capable of hitting midrange jump shots, which creates space regardless of who is on the floor.
“Guys on the team are selfless; they play for each other,” Vogel said. “That’s what we talk about every film session, every practice. We want to be a team-first team.”
One of these days Vogel is going to have a complete team, with 15 healthy players. Shayne Whittington and Rakeem Christmas likely will stay in Fort Wayne for most if not all of the season, but what does a coach do when George Hill and Turner come back and theoretically bounce the incredibly intriguing Robinson out of the 10-man rotation, where he began the season?
Robinson just gets better and better with each opportunity. He not only hit all four of his three-pointers Saturday, he had an impressive dunk on a lob pass from Ellis and hit a well-guarded jumper from just inside the 3-point line to beat the shot clock. He also picked off two steals, taking advantage of what he had learned in film study about being in proper position at the start of a defensive possession.
He’s been a beautiful sight for Vogel. And is a looming headache, too.
“It’s too much,” Vogel said, smiling. “It’s driving me crazy. He has to stop making all those shots. I’ll just harp on the fact he missed one.”
And continue to curse Bird beneath his breath, for dumping so much promising talent on him.
Oh, and by the way, Frank. Christmas scored 27 points for the Mad Ants Saturday. What about him?