Bitadze Gives Pacers a Boost from the Bench

He's a nice guy, this 20-year-old rookie, eager to please, eager to learn and committed to showing respect for his new profession.

But Goga Bitadze might have taken things a little too far late in the third quarter on Friday when he — gasp — extended a helping hand to Cleveland guard Jordan Clarkson after knocking him down and committing a foul.

Radio analyst Slick Leonard admonished Bitadze for his sportsmanlike conduct on the air, and some of his teammates were in his ear about it during the break between quarters. It's an unwritten rule in the NBA to rush over and help up every knocked-down teammate, but to let opponents take care of one another. It's a rule Bitadze will have to learn.

"I thought he went (down) hard and I thought he got hurt or something," Bitadze recalled to the arc of reporters crowding in front of his locker following the Pacers' 102-95 victory. "I was making sure he was OK. You don't want to see any of the players get hurt.

"I feel respect. But if they don't want me to help anybody, I won't help anybody," he added, smiling.

If that was Bitadze's biggest mistake of the game, the Pacers were happy to live with it. His 10 points and nine rebounds over 25 minutes off the bench were crucial in their second consecutive victory. It was accomplished without starting center Myles Turner, who sprained an ankle early in Wednesday's victory in Brooklyn, which created a desperate need for Bitadze's gritty contributions.

Given the uncertainty of Turner's return, Bitadze will have plenty more opportunities to clobber pesky guards invading the lane, and to pick them up if he pleases.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he'll keep the "four" spot available on a game-by-game basis, letting matchups determine the starter. TJ Leaf got the call on Friday but picked up two quick fouls trying to contend with Cavs forward Kevin Love and played but eight minutes overall. JaKarr Sampson got his first playing time of the season, but also got two quick fouls and played but 10 1/2 minutes.

Domantas Sabonis was exceptional once again with 18 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, but he can't play all 48 minutes. He went 37 and change in this one, barely above his season average. He says he's fit enough for that kind of blue-collar workload, having heeded his famous father's advice to prepare his body for whatever comes along. But some other big body is going to have to contribute, and right now Bitadze is the obvious choice.

Perhaps the best thing about the Pacers' victory as a long-term indicator is that Bitadze and Sabonis successfully played together, as Turner and Sabonis had been doing. McMillan had them both on the court for the final 4:52 of the first half, and the Pacers surged from a one-point deficit to a five-point halftime lead. Sabonis scored four of their 11 points during that stretch and Bitadze blocked a shot and grabbed a rebound on Cleveland's final possession.

They played together again from the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter until the final 52 seconds, during which the Pacers' lead jumped from three points to a peak of 11. The Cavs whittled it down to six, but never got closer amid an interminable finish extended by fouls, turnovers, and a review.

Bitadze made several contributions down the stretch. His 3-pointer from the left wing opened a nine-point lead with 8:20 remaining, bringing a welcome exception on a night the Pacers hit just 5-of-27 shots from behind the arc. On the Cavs' ensuing possession he stripped the ball from Kevin Love on the perimeter to force a turnover, which led to Sabonis' dunk on a feed from T.J. McConnell.

Goga Bitadze

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

Bitadze had played in only the final preseason game because of a sprained ankle and in just two of the four previous regular season games for a total of 13 minutes. Friday's game, then, brought something resembling a breakthrough for him. His improved confidence was obvious. He still made rookie mistakes, such as goaltending a shot that a teammate had already fouled, which led to a three-point play for the Cavs. But he looked like he belonged, and it was no coincidence that the Pacers outrebounded an opponent for the first time this season.

"Slowly he's going to be able to help us," McMillan said.

Both as a backup to and a partner with Sabonis. The Cavs have two of the best rebounders in the NBA in Love and Tristan Thompson, and teams such as that will sometimes require the presence of two 6-foot-11 Pacers. Sabonis and Bitadze are the only healthy ones on the roster at the moment.

"I liked the way they looked out there," McMillan said. "The two of them gives us length. We should be a better rebounding team. I thought he did a nice job adjusting to playing off the ball."

Bitadze has listened intently to Turner and Sabonis since training camp began, and they have been willing mentors. Turner, for one, was in Bitadze's ear during one timeout, telling him to stay straight up on defense and avoid reach-in fouls. Sabonis has had his share of advice, too, but makes it a point not to overwhelm the rookie.

"He's a great kid and he looks up to me and Myles," Sabonis said. "It's fun. It's weird being an older guy now. I try to set the right example for him.

"As a rookie I listened to everybody, but I didn't like it when a lot of people would come and fill my ear. I try to pick and choose my moments. When I see he's really frustrated I come over, but I don't try to say too much."

One of Bitadze's greatest adjustments will be to the speed of the NBA game, which is another gear beyond what's played in Europe. An American coming out of college would face the same challenge, though, and it takes time. Time and growth.

"I'm working on it every day, trying to get stronger, more athletic, more explosive," Bitadze said. "Right now, I think I'm ready to go out there and challenge those shots and get those rebounds. I think I'm strong enough to hit some guys and show them I'm not here to get bullied. I know I'm rookie and they'll try to bully me, but that's not going to happen.

"I think this game helped me a lot."

Helped the Pacers a lot, too. Gave them a lift, you might say.

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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