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The Indiana Pacers pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers to a Game 7 in the first round of the NBA playoffs last season before bowing out.
With LeBron James having exited Cleveland, stage west, and with the Pacers adding free-agent signees Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn and drafting Aaron Holiday, the Pacers have every right to feel good about their prospects heading into the 2018-19 season.
And they do.
“We feel good about our draft picks and our free agents that we were able to pick up,” Indiana coach Nate McMillan told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe. “We felt like we added a need to our roster. We felt like we were able to strengthen our bench.
“All of those were guys we felt like if we could improve that position, we wanted to. Aaron is going to be a real solid guard in this league.”
With James having left them in his wake for a second time, the four-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers are expected to take more than one step backward.
Most pundits put the Boston Celtics, with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward expected to be fully healthy, Philadelphia 76ers, with their young core led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and with the addition of Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors, as the three teams most likely to prevail in the East with James in the West.
Not so fast, McMillan says. Indiana went 48-34 in the regular season last year, two games behind Cleveland, and earned the No. 5 seed heading into the playoffs.
“Is it open? With LeBron [out]? Yes. We’re happy that he’s gone west,” McMillan, who agreed with a contract extension to remain with the Pacers through the 2020-21 season earlier this month, said. “But we know that it’s still going to be a challenge and we have to make sure we work on us and not assume anything.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us to do the things we did last season and do it better.”
Along the way, the Pacers will be spurred by the progress and prowess they showed in the postseason against Cleveland in the spring.
“We’re going to stay hungry. Last year, we did some good things. We’re not satisfied with that,” McMillan told Washburn. “Our approach this offseason has been we know we’ve got to work even harder and come back even better than we were last year. We’re adding some new guys to our roster, so we felt like we created a culture and identity last season.
“We felt like these guys that we picked up in free agency will fit into what we started last season. We’re really looking forward to getting started.”