McMillan psyching Pacers to play


Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan has latched onto an analogy. He wants his players to lose track of the real calendar.

“We want these guys to approach things like it’s September,” McMillan said.

To him, May equals September, just on the cusp of training camp starting.

We are basically in the middle of the longest timeout in NBA history. Ill-timed, inconvenient, all in the interests of not getting ill.

It has been nearly two months since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down professional basketball with less than 20% remaining of the 2019-20 regular season and before the playoffs could begin.

The Pacers have been sitting on a 39-26 record since mid-March with 17 games to go on the regular-season schedule. Games were shoved aside as the coronavirus’ life-and-death nature paralyzed the world more or less in place.

The NBA was not an essential business, nor will it be one of the first to reopen. But there is every indication it does plan to reopen. No one knows when or how, with fans or without, finishing all regular-season games or skipping the rest of them and going right to the playoffs to crown a champion.

However it works out, McMillan wants his players ready to play, not coming off of a prolonged stretch of keeping offbeat hours, eating poorly and skipping workouts.

Speaking to reporters last week, McMillan said the team, like so many other professional franchises, has kept in touch with players through various technological devices and sought to divert them from bad habits.

“We have our players basically in a mindset to prepare to play,” McMillan said. “We don’t know when. We’re going to play basketball again this season. We want our guys to have that switch on.”

McMillan spoke quite a bit about having switches on or off — off signifying mental vacation mode, on meaning ready to run when the teams congregate for practice and games.

During the preseason, the Pacers work out for seven or eight days before an initial exhibition game. Will the league sanction more practice time returning from this hiatus? Will the Pacers play six or seven of those regular-season games and call it good before the playoffs?

What will the scene look like? Will fans be permitted to attend? Will fans be required to wear face masks in their seats? Will the seats be 6 feet away from the next closest spectator?

“Whatever the NBA gives us, we’ve got to be ready to go,” McMillan said.

He said he hasn’t been told much about firm plans. The coaches are listening to the front office, which is listening to the NBA office. If games are contested in empty arenas, so be it. The players will still go hard, he said.

“It’s basketball,” McMillan said. “It’s going to be competitive. You lace them up.”

The atmospheric conditions will be different, though, he admitted, if games that count in the standings are played in echoing buildings.

“It’ll be a little bit weird,” McMillan said. “It’s strange.”

Recalling longish playing intermissions because of labor issues and lockouts in the past, McMillan is wary of the consequences of players easing off diets or in workouts.

“I’ve seen careers end,” he said.

Too many snacks pilfered from the refrigerator at the wrong time of day, breaking routines by staying up late and sleeping late and blowing off training were bad habits indulged.

“And they never got it back,” he said.

That might seem alarmist, but McMillan certainly sounded serious. He also may have been indirectly steering a message at guys at home. Rules are beginning to loosen on team facility use last Friday.

McMillan said he would like to see players start returning to Indiana if they have been sheltering in other states.

“Things are going to ramp up,” he said.

Probably so, even if the NBA’s secret timetable has not yet been announced. Thus far, there has been no wavering on a commitment to complete this season in some fashion.

Unless a COVID-19 surge endangering many more lives interferes, there will almost certainly be an NBA champ crowned this year.

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