Domantas Sabonis is in Los Angeles trying to recover from plantar fasciitis and apparently won't be walking through that Orlando bubble door anytime soon to rejoin his teammates. That means the Pacers will have to make do with what they have for the foreseeable future, which means some changes are in order.
The most obvious is that Aaron Holiday replaces Sabonis in the starting lineup and everyone adjusts accordingly in a smaller lineup. Myles Turner moves from four to five, T.J. Warren moves from three to four, and Malcolm Brogdon stays at point guard but plays off the ball more.
Nobody is pretending the loss of the team's only All-Star selection this season is a good thing. Sabonis is the leading rebounder by a wide margin, the leading scorer by a slim margin, and an able and willing passer who lubricates the offensive flow. It was telling that the first words out of Nate McMillan's mouth on Monday when asked what the team will miss because of Sabonis' absence were, "Oh, man."
It's a long list.
The Pacers' starters, however, looked sharp through lengthy stretches in Sunday's exhibition victory over Dallas and will look for silver linings, both in Tuesday's final exhibition game against San Antonio and the resumption of the regular season on Saturday against Philadelphia.
"We do have guys who can supplement and do different things that Domas didn't do," Brogdon said. "Our goal is not to replace him; we're not going to be able to do that. But now we can have more shooting on the floor, now we can have more ballhandlers, more penetration. We can spread the floor a little better so we can play to different strengths."
The Pacers have no choice but to play small-ball because Sabonis isn't the only centerpiece missing. Rookie Goga Bitadze, who was having a rude introduction to the NBA's brand of basketball but could have brought valuable size to the lineup, is still a couple of weeks from joining the team in practice, according to McMillan. That leaves forwards JaKarr Sampson and TJ Leaf to fill the role of backup center.
The greatest factor in the success of the revised lineup likely will be the chemistry between Brogdon and Victor Oladipo. The potential certainly is there for them to be one of the Pacers' better backcourt combinations. Brogdon was the NBA's Rookie of the Year three seasons ago and Oladipo was an All-Star two seasons ago. Both are complete players who have embraced their backcourt partnership, but they are barely beyond the nametag stage of their acquaintance.
They have played in the same game just 10 times this season and started seven. The Pacers lost the first three but won the next four as they looked more and more like a couple rather than blind dates. They were particularly compatible in the exhibition victory over Dallas when Brogdon finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, and six assists while Oladipo had 16 points, seven rebounds, and three assists.
The Pacers will need all of that and more when the games get real in Orlando.
"Time on the floor is the key," McMillan said. "We can't speed that up.
McMillan was hoping to do that when practice began in Orlando, but Brogdon sat out the first few workouts while coming off his quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. McMillan paired the two in practice scrimmages as quickly as possible, though. It amounts to a crash course. Kind of like speed dating.
"(Sunday) I thought we took a huge step," Brogdon said. "Tomorrow I think we'll take another big step. It's just understanding each other's games and building that confidence.
"The more pace I play with, the better Vic is going to be. Vic is a great player on his own, but if he has a point guard who can play the same tempo as him and get the ball up the court fast, give it to him in the right spots in transition, and then when we get in halfcourt make sure we design plays for him so he's getting downhill and using his speed and athleticism, he's going to be at his best."
McMillan said the starters will play 24-28 minutes against the Spurs, but he will make a point of having them in the game in the fourth quarter. They sat out the final period against Dallas, leaving the reserves to hang on to a lead...No significant injuries resulted from Sunday's game and everyone other than Sabonis and Bitadze should be available. Sampson suffered back spasms after the game but practiced on Monday. "I'm good," he said. "It's a cold gym down here and I have to do a better job staying warm on the bench."
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