KRAVITZ: Struggling Turner needs to get his game together if the Pacers are to have a chance

Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) drives on New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Bob Kravitz

Nobody is saying that Myles Turner had a poor season. That wouldn't be accurate, and it wouldn't be fair, not for a 22-year-old who should just now be getting drafted and entering the league. What is fair is the assessment Turner gave of himself Thursday afternoon as the Pacers prepared for Sunday’s playoff opener in Cleveland:

“…The season wasn’t necessarily a letdown for me,’’ he said. “I didn't ascend as high as I wanted to, but this is a new season now.’’

In some statistical areas, he has improved. In others, he has regressed. He did not, however, have the breakout season most of us were expecting in his third year in the league. When Paul George was traded, there was the hope and belief Turner would become the face of the franchise and one of its centerpieces, and that never happened. His inconsistency was maddening, only leavened by the fact the Pacers continued to win, and win some more, despite his all-too-routine lack of consistency.

And now? He’s in a slump, a terrible slump. He’s scored in single-digits nine of the last 10 games, averaging 7.3 points – an amazingly poor number given the fact he had a 24-point, 8-rebound game during that time. He’s been largely invisible on the boards, averaging 3.7 rebounds during that stretch.

This, though, is the start of a new season for Turner, who needs to be a consistent contributor for the Pacers to have a shot at this series – and yes, they have a shot, even better than a puncher’s chance. Whoever Turner guards, he needs to be the shot-blocking, rebounding and scoring presence that he was shortly after an unnamed teammate (Al Jefferson?) called him “soft’’ and inspired a stretch of far more aggressive play.

And if he doesn't, if he pulls a Roy Hibbert, coach Nate McMillan will have no choice but to play Domantas Sabonis far greater minutes than he’d prefer. Think that leash won’t be a short one with the season on the line? Here’s guessing it will be — and needs to be.

It’s been a challenge for Turner. There was the concussion. There was the elbow injury on a violent slam dunk. At times, he’s looked like the player we expected him to become and still expect him to become. And at other times, too many times, his lack of physicality made him a cipher on the floor.

Nobody is asking for Turner to become a low-post beast, not at 250 pounds and still developing physically. That’s not his game, not part of his skillset. He’s not going to establish deep post position and then muscle his way to the basket for an easy shot at the rim.

What he can do, though, is become a far greater presence both as a rebounder and around the basket. And it wouldn't hurt if he started shooting more consistently from the perimeter, which is his bread and butter when the Pacers use him, and Victor Oladipo in the pick-and-pop game.

Asked what the Pacers need from him in this postseason, he noted the obvious: “I need to come out and be the aggressive Myles Turner, like I’ve been a couple of times this season.’’

So how do the Pacers summon that aggressive Myles Turner?

Don’t expect anybody to call him “soft’’ or to take the tough-love approach. They know Turner is in a vulnerable place right now, having played so poorly in recent weeks. They know he cares deeply about being a game-changing presence, and they know his struggles are starting to get in his head. The frustration is palpable, as we saw when he requested to play in the season finale Tuesday, then went 1 of 8 from the field. After Thursday’s practice, he spent a good 30 to 45 minutes getting up extra shots.

“He’ll be fine,’’ Darren Collison said. “I’m not worried about Myles. He’ll be fine.’’

They all say that: He’ll be fine.

But for an unhealthy portion of 82 games, he hasn't been fine, or at least he hasn't played to the level most people — likely himself included — expected.

“He just needs to continue being confident and taking his shots,’’ Thad Young said. “This was his tough stretch. Now, in the playoffs, I think he’ll be great. He just needs to make sure his presence is felt. We’re going to need Myles to play well. It’s going to be a tough series to win if he isn’t playing well. But I think he’ll step up to the plate.’’

Sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, but it’s all the Pacers have at this point.

The good news is, if Turner is going to turn his game around, he’s picked the right opponent. The Cavaliers aren't bad defensively; they’re putrid. They finished the season 26th in points allowed at 109.9 points per game. They were 29th in defensive efficiency. They were 27th in opponents’ field-goal percentage. They were Colts defense lousy. They were bad last year, and remember, the Pacers had little trouble scoring on them in the closest four-game sweep in history, a series that was decided by a combined 18 points. This year, they are worse, far worse.

That said, they have LeBron James and they have LeBron James’ history in their corner. James is 12-0 in first round series and his teams have won 21 straight first-round games. Overall, James-led teams have gone 45-7 in the first round, and have not lost a first-rounder since May 6, 2012, way back when James had hair.

With Turner at his best, or close to his best, the Pacers have a bonafide shot in this series. Without him, it’s going to be a long, tough summer of self-evaluation and questions about whatever happened to one of the team’s most promising young players in years.

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