McMillan’s new philosophy rekindles title hopes in Indiana

FILE - In this file photo from Oct. 14, 2016, Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan, center, talks with Jeff Teague (44) and Thaddeus Young (21) during an NBA preseason basketball game against the Orlando Magic in Orlando, Fla. (AP File Photo/John Raoux)
FILE - In this file photo from Oct. 14, 2016, Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan, center, talks with Jeff Teague (44) and Thaddeus Young (21) during an NBA preseason basketball game against the Orlando Magic in Orlando, Fla. (AP File Photo/John Raoux)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Nate McMillan learned a lot the last three seasons as an Indiana Pacers assistant.

Working with a more mature team and established leaders, McMillan shed the drill-sergeant label he earned in Seattle and Portland. Working with a defensive-minded team, he found it to be OK to loosen up the reins on offense. And because he wasn’t the head coach, McMillan had time to rethink his coaching philosophies.

All the new Indiana coach has to do now is stay true to those lessons and keep winning.

“What we have to do this year, including me, is reinvent ourselves,” McMillan said. “The style of play has changed and a lot of teams have gone small ball. I think Golden State and Memphis really changed the way people developed their teams. You saw, not long ago, it was big versus small. Small won.”

Now everyone is trying to adapt.

A year ago, Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird promised fans a faster, more entertaining style of basketball. Instead, it got scrapped because Indiana didn’t have enough pieces to make it work consistently. Indiana made a first-round playoff exit and Bird hired McMillan to replace Frank Vogel.

Bird continued the transition this offseason, acquiring point guard Jeff Teague and power forward Thaddeus Young in trades and signing free agent center Al Jefferson to go with three-time All-Star Paul George and budding second-year center Myles Turner.

And suddenly, the future looks bright.

“I think it’s back,” George said when asked about the Pacers’ title hopes. “Having David (West) and having Roy (Hibbert), that was a great unit. I don’t want to jump the gun and say this is the best team I’ve played on, but it certainly could be.”

McMillan just has to find a way to embrace the new style and win games in ways most people never envisioned in his first two head coaching stops.

“This is a different team. We have a lot of guys in their prime and I hope we have a lot of hungry guys,” McMillan said. “I think they want to be part of a winner and, hopefully, they want to win big.”

Here are some other things to watch for from the Pacers:

RATED PG

In his first full season back from a broken leg, George led the Pacers in scoring (23.1 points), was second in rebounding (7.0) and third in assists (4.1). He was even better in the playoff (27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds) despite acknowledging he wasn’t completely healthy. How much better can George be this season?

“I’ve always kind of seen myself at that next (elite) level of talent, and I think this is really my first opportunity to prove I’m the best player on the court every night,” he said.

BACK HOME AGAIN

Teague returns to his hometown, and the former All-Star is a more natural point guard than his predecessor (George Hill). Teague also is quicker and better at getting to the basket than Hill, all of which will help smooth the transition. But without Hill, the Pacers lose a versatile defender. Teague’s contract also expires at the end of the season.

TURNER’S TURN

Turner’s rookie season was first slowed by an injury, then by his inability to crack the starting lineup until midseason. Yet the 6-foot-11, 20-year-old showed so much promise that the Pacers wasted no time naming him the starting center, and they expect the progression to continue this season.

“My approach didn’t change, the quality of my work changed,” Turner said of his offseason. “I was really able to hone in on what I wanted to work on.”

SHOOTING STARS

The biggest question is whether the Pacers have enough 3-point shooters to make the spread offense work. Bird and McMillan discount those criticisms, figuring Teague, George, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles and potentially Turner can all shoot 3s.

BUSY FIRST WEEK

The Pacers are busy right away: The opener comes at home Oct. 26 against Dallas, followed by back-to-back road games against Brooklyn (Oct. 28) and Chicago (Oct. 29).