Thomas as coach: Unconventional, calm
Unconventional and calm are two words to describe Isiah Thomas' first week as Pacer coach, notes Marc Stein.
NBA coaches typically couldn't bring themselves to trust neophytes such as Bender, Al Harrington and Jeff Foster to play alongside Travis Best and career backup Zan Tabak in the third quarter of a tight opening night, as Thomas briefly did in his debut.
NBA coaches certainly aren't usually seen in their locker rooms after a game, milling about with the players. Or clutching a stat sheet, hunting down a chair and ultimately plopping between Best and Derrick McKey to see if the veterans have any suggestions about righting some free-throw woes.
"Let me show you guys something," Isiah Thomas whispered, mere minutes after the reigning Eastern Conference champion Indiana Pacers were dropped to 0-2. "What can we do about this?"
Thomas was pointing to the 10 free throws Indiana missed in a six-point game, and unintentionally supplying yet another hint that the search for solutions will be anything but normal on Zeke's watch. Everyone wants to know what kind of coach Isiah will be -- since so few of us ever expected him to be one -- and this much you can already tell.
He's going to be different.
It's a little early for snap judgments, true, but Week 1 of the Thomas Era was too unconventional to ignore. Mainly, he just looked so freakishly calm as the Pacers, last seen stretching the Lakers to six games in the NBA Finals, needed three games just to break 90 points and a get a win.
Maybe calmer, perhaps, than the expressionless Larry Bird.
"He's a calm guy," Austin Croshere said of his new boss.
How calm? So calm that, so far, Thomas is spending more time sitting on his hot seat than stalking up and down the coaches' box. He has also displayed no hesitation about dropping his hands into his pockets when things start going bad, or repeatedly flashing that trademark smile while his Pacers were losing in San Antonio and Dallas to start the new season.
There were hearty laughs in Week 1, too. Smiles. Laughter. At this rate, we're half-expecting Thomas to bust out that famous little jig -- the one from all the old highlight reels where he tucks the ball under his arm and dances in circles on the floor -- when 1-2 Indiana makes it to .500.
We doubt you can stay this unflappable, Mr. Thomas. Can you?
"I'm going to be honest with you -- I don't know," said Thomas, before letting out another robust chuckle. "I just try to get a lot of work done in practice. If we can get the things done that we want, I shouldn't have to get up too much and make too much noise during the games.
"Everyone has a different personality. And mine is probably still developing on the sideline."
Thomas, at 39, seems unruffled by the knowledge that his every sideline twitch will be scrutinized. Of course, that will inevitably lead to suspicions that it's all an act from a renowned actor -- just more evidence to support the widely held belief that Thomas is manipulative, selfish and coaching merely because it's a necessary step on the road to NBA ownership, his real ambition. The theory Thomas has to keep calm on the outside to prevent anyone from suggesting that he's not in control or not ready for the X-and-O world.
His most prominent players don't buy that, though. Reggie Miller, initially fuming in the wake of Indiana's decisions to abandon Mark Jackson and Dale Davis, says now that Thomas has helped him "feel better" about the Pacers' long-term prospects. Michigan man Jalen Rose, who should return later this week after breaking his wrist, talks excitedly about playing for one of his boyhood idols.
"Isiah and Magic -- that's like 1A and 1B for me," Rose said.
It's a mutual admiration society, too, because Thomas is referring to Rose -- not Miller -- as "our best player." As in: "Don't forget we're playing without our best player, without our leading scorer," Thomas said.
As long as Miller is OK with that assertion, and so long as Thomas' top two players are so supportive, he shouldn't have any internal problems. All of the other Pacers will fall right into line behind the two All-Stars.
And that will allow Thomas to proceed to the bigger problems. Such as offense and defense. Isiah has said repeatedly that he wants the Pacers to "make it very difficult for the opponent to score" as a defense-first club, but that's difficult when Rose is out and Miller is surrounded by kiddies. The younger Pacers don't know how to fight through screens, or get out to open shooters or counter the basic pick-and-roll. Even Best, who has been around, tends to gamble for too many steals ... and dribble too much for Reggie's liking.
Thomas' early offense features more of Bobby Knight's passing game than the pick-and-rolls Chuck Daly often called when Thomas was wearing No. 11 instead of a suit. But without Rose, points have been hard to come by: 85 against the Spurs, 88 against the Mavericks and just 94 in victory No. 1 over lowly Chicago. Miller, meanwhile, is much more apt to get frustrated by all the inexperience in his world rather than his interactions with the new coach. "0-2 ? that's not worth commenting on," Miller snapped last Thursday night, before storming out of Reunion Arena.
"I think Reggie's handling it pretty well," Thomas countered.
As for himself, Thomas added: "I don't feel helpless at all. I like the way our team is shaping up. I don't see a lot of teams in this league going out and -- excuse me -- kicking ass on the road, unless you're a veteran team that's been together for a long time."
With that, Thomas retreated behind closed doors to continue his unusual survey. He sat with Rose and Terry Mills and asked them the same question about free throws that Best and McKey got: "What can we do about this?" It's ultimately up to Thomas to manufacture the answers, but, whether he's capable or not, Pacers fans will be interested to know that the coach ain't worried.
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Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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