It took a while, but no longer than it should have for a guy who had only played eight minutes over the nine games since Dec. 22. Surely 28 minutes on the court isn't an unreasonable amount of time to sand off that much rust.
Malcolm Brogdon, finally healthy again after dealing with a dislocated pinkie finger, pulled hamstring, sore lower back, and strep throat, returned to his rightful place in the Pacers' lineup Monday and did what he was hired to do: close out a close game with clutch plays.
An important game, too. The Pacers' 101-95 victory over Philadelphia improved their record to 25-15 and vaulted them over the Sixers into fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings, just a half-game back of Toronto in fourth. With seven games still to play — six on the road — until Victor Oladipo's scheduled return on Jan. 29, they'll take every win they can get, especially over opponents they're contending with for a playoff position.
"It was a big game for us," Brogdon said. "It was a big game for us."
That's about as dramatic as the presidential Brogdon gets in postgame comments. Fortunately for the Pacers, though, he's capable of plenty of drama in tight games. Brogdon struggled through most of the first three quarters, hitting just two of his first 10 shots. But he was shining at the end, scoring eight points in the final few minutes to complete the Pacers' comeback from an 11-point third-quarter deficit.
Brogdon hit a 3-pointer to tie the game with 3:19 left. He added a 19-footer on their next possession for a two-point lead. After missing a 3-pointer with 65 seconds left, he hit 1-of-2 foul shots with 32.3 seconds remaining and then two with 25.4 seconds left to clinch the victory that gave the Pacers a 2-1 lead in the season series with the Sixers.
It was reminiscent of the Pacers' victory over the Lakers on Dec. 17, when Brogdon scored seven points in the final 3:17 to overcome a five-point deficit.
"That's our leader; that's our point guard," coach Nate McMillan said. "It was obvious he had been off for a while and didn't have his rhythm, his timing, out there. And he just stuck with it, continued to talk to the team about staying with it...he's the guy who establishes how we want to play on both ends of the floor."
Photo Credit: Matt Kryger
The Pacers played nothing like how they want to play at either end for 2 1/2 quarters. Their offense was stuck in slow motion and they were hitting less than 40 percent of their field goal attempts when Philadelphia's lead peaked at 63-52 with 5:18 left in the third quarter. But that's when the Pacers began meshing.
Myles Turner scored on a turnaround shot in the lane, added two free throws, fed T.J. Warren for a layup and hit a 3-pointer off Brogdon's feed to complete a 9-0 run that lasted less than two minutes. Brogdon later added a 3-pointer and two foul shots to tie the game by the end of the third period and set up his closing heroics.
"When you're out for at least three or four games it takes you awhile to get your rhythm," he said. "In the first half I didn't have my rhythm. I feel like I messed up the chemistry a lot in the first half; guys were trying to adjust to me being back in the lineup. I was just hoping I'd get my rhythm back by the end of the game."
Brogdon's as good a leader as the Pacers have ever had, based on what his teammates and McMillan say about him. Not just because of what he does, but what he says.
"He's like the coach on the floor," Warren said. "Whenever Nate can't get through to us on the court, you've got Malcolm there."
Said Brogdon: "I just try to be calm and make sure guys see me calm, make sure I'm always keeping guys in the right positions, getting guys the ball, making sure we have the right matchups on defense. Just little stuff like that keeps us organized and keeps guys involved in the game."
A lot of guys were involved in this one for the Pacers.
Warren scored 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting to share the team scoring lead with Brogdon.
Domantas Sabonis, a game-time decision to play after sitting out Saturday's victory at Chicago with a bruised left knee, scored 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting but had a game-high 16 rebounds. The knee still hurts, but once he was told it couldn't get worse just from playing he decided to go.
Myles Turner had a second straight double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Two in particular were big. Standing in the left corner while Justin Holiday was preparing to inbound the ball on the baseline, he recognized a hole in Philadelphia's zone defense and improvised a cut to the basket. Holiday flipped him the ball, Turner drew a foul, and hit two foul shots with 1:41 left to give the Pacers a one-point lead.
"I didn't see anything happening, so I made a cut and Justin made a great pass," Turner said.
Holiday, meanwhile, came off the bench to hit 4-of-6 3-pointers and score 14 points.
T.J. McConnell, however, made the game's most memorable play, the highlight certain to get the most replay. After getting beat a couple of times by Sixers guard Raul Neto, McConnell drove hard to the basket and hit a fading five-footer off the dribble. He fell out of bounds after taking a bump from Neto but got back up and rushed back on defense. Catching up with Neto just after crossing the midcourt line, he made a left-handed swipe of Neto's right-handed dribble and stole the ball. Dribbling toward the Pacers' basket, he was bumped by Matisse Thybulle from behind and fell, but still made a left-handed bounce pass to Holiday for a dunk that gave the Pacers a three-point lead.
More importantly, it ignited the Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd and gave the Pacers all the fuel they needed for the trip home.
"He had his back turned to me, so I made one of those effort plays," McConnell said.
"Anytime we can make a play like that to get our crowd juiced up, it's a big play."
McConnell, though, happens to be the one who most often makes those plays.
"It's a momentum-shifter," Brogdon said. "That's his biggest role, to come in and change the momentum of the game. That's a huge role to play but he does it well for us every game."
And now Brogdon is back playing his role. Sixteen days from now, Oladipo should be back as well. And then the Pacers can begin to find out what kind of team they really have.
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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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