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Pacers' Domantas Sabonis reaching new levels this season

The big man has dominated after missing the 2019-20 season restart.

Domantas Sabonis has been dominant for Indiana this season.

The way Domantas Sabonis is playing now owes a lot to how he wasn’t playing then.

Sabonis, Indiana’s still-developing All-Star power forward, has sizzled during the Pacers’ first ten games. With a points/rebounds double-double in each — including one triple-double and a 20-20 game against Phoenix over the weekend — the 6-foot-11 scion of Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis is averaging 22.2 point, 12.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists heading into Tuesday night’s game at Golden State.

All of which is a vast improvement over the 0.0 across the board Sabonis posted in the Orlando restart last summer. A painful bout of plantar fasciitis in his left foot wiped out Indiana’s eight seeding games for him, followed by its first-round series against Miami that whizzed by in a sweep.

Painful met painful, as Sabonis — who had injured the foot when he and teammates assembled for some pre-restart scrimmages — left the bubble to see a specialist, felt some improvement, quarantined back in, then didn’t get the Game 6 or Game 7 he felt might have bought him the time to get on the court.

“I’m not going to lie, it was tough,” Sabonis told after a walk-through in Sacramento Monday. “Especially during that quarantine time when we were all working out, trying to get in shape, prior to training camp actually. I found out about the plantar fascia a week before the season was about to start. You play all year round to make the playoffs, and to miss that was tough.”

What we’ve seen over the past three weeks then has been Sabonis unleashed. Here was a guy, the lone All-Star from a perennial playoff team, and he was as impatient to play again as anyone on the long-layoff clubs not invited to the bubble.

“I hadn’t played since March,” the 24-year-old said. “Since all the teams that missed the bubble, it was almost a year, you know, so. This is the sport we love, so being able to come out and play, it was awesome. Even the preseason games, I was excited to be out there with some real referees.”

He even missed the refs? Wow, that’s how much Sabonis wanted back.

Under new Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren and his staff, Sabonis isn’t just back, he’s better. His dribble-handoff and pick-and-roll abilities are crisper, quicker, with more room to roam now that Indiana’s floor is more deeply spaced. He is the hub of all they do offensively, screening, passing, posting up or creating opportunities for himself with a couple of baseline dribbles.

Defensively, Sabonis — at 240 pounds — is in charge of glomming onto missed shots while cohort Myles Turner deflects or discourages them. Sabonis can deliver the contact at one end of the floor and absorb it at the other.

It showed Saturday against Phoenix, the Pacers’ final home game before their current five-game Western Conference trip. Coping with the Suns’ Deandre Ayton, Sabonis caught fire in the third quarter on his way to 28 points and 22 rebounds, the first 20-20 game by an Indiana player since Troy Murphy in 2008.

Best moments from Domantas Sabonis during Indiana’s loss to Phoenix.

“He’s a strong dude,” Suns analyst and former NBA guard Eddie Johnson said during the broadcast. “He’s not going to overpower you in the air. He’s just going to beat you up on the floor. You have to be ready for him, you have to fight him. He’s having his way. From a physicality standpoint, somebody’s going to have to do something here.”

Phoenix eventually fended off Sabonis and his team, pulling away thanks to Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker’s combined 59 points. Still, Sabonis’ roll continued with the ninth of what now is 10-for-10 in double-doubles. He had 50 of them in 62 appearances last season.

“For those who had a great opportunity to see his dad play, Arvydas Sabonis, you have to understand where this kid gets all his fun,” Johnson said. “He is simply unguardable at times. And his dad was unguardable. The footwork he is showing in this second half, y’know, he’s pretty much destroying the Suns’ interior defense.”

Sure enough, footwork was one of the things Sabonis labored to improve in the extended time he had between his seasons. This work can be seen in the better balance he displays while seeking and taking shots. He is making 56.4% of his shots, including 40.9% from behind the arc.

Most noticeably, Sabonis is averaging 2.2 3-point attempts, on pace for 158. That’s in line with the 159 he launched prematurely as a 20-year-old rookie with OKC in 2016-17, and a clear upgrade to the 121 he’s taken in the past three seasons combined.

Credit Bjorkgren for much of that, directly and indirectly. The Pacers have joined the rest of the NBA — they’re averaging 34 3-pointers so far, up from 28 per game in 2019-20. That’s a bump from last place to 18th. Sabonis took nearly 19% of his shots last season as 2-pointers from 10 feet out to the 3-point line. This year, less than 8%.

There still is work to be done. Sabonis can get targeted defensively and look adrift against smaller, shiftier opponents. He is tied for 10th in turnovers (36), though the names all around him in that category — Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo — are elite company.

His free throw attempts are up (5.5 nightly) but his accuracy isn’t. At 67.3%, it’s his first time below 70% since his rookie season. The Pacers need those, too, getting outscored by 2.9 per game from the line.

And yet few are nit-picking in Indianapolis, given Sabonis’ play overall. Especially when factoring in his workload, 37.8 minutes that ranks second in the NBA behind New York’s R.J. Barrett at 37.9. Bjorkgren has been leaning heavily on his talented big man and point guard Malcolm Brogdon (37.5 minutes).

Though it’s unclear if it’s sustainable — this trip has the Pacers playing five games in seven nights bouncing up and down the West Coast — the temptation is understandable.

Bjorkgren praised Sabonis liberally after their first few games together. “He’ll be patient, he’ll wait for cutters, he’ll wait for the open man to present himself,” the coach said. “When he’s on that block, not only can he score but he’s a trigger man and he can make plays.”

It’s challenging with a rotating cast of available teammates. Indiana has been beset by injuries again, notably to bubble breakout star T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and Goga Bitadze. Last season, 13 players — including Victor Oladipo, Brogdon and Sabonis — missed a combined 190 games, and former coach Nate McMillan used 22 different starting lineups to steer the Pacers to a 45-28 record and No. 4 seed.

Since Sabonis has been on both sides, he had no problem expressing a preference. Harder to be hurt or harder to soldier on without his mates?

“It’s definitely harder being hurt,” he said, chuckling. “If you can’t play ball, the sport you love, it doesn’t matter what else is going on. Seeing your teammates out there without you, you know you can’t help and be there for them.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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