Holiday Season Arrives Just In Time for Pacers

Opportunity knocked with 3 minutes, 14 seconds left in the third quarter. The Pacers had shaved an Atlanta lead that was 14 points early in the period to two points, forcing a Hawks timeout.

It didn't seem like an appropriate time to go with a rookie point guard who had played just 16 minutes all season, and not at all in the previous nine games. Never mind that he's a first-round draft pick with bloodlines, the kid hadn't proven himself in the fire of an undetermined NBA game, and this game was far from being settled.

Nate McMillan, whose instincts for late-game substitutions are uncanny, gave Aaron Holiday his first meaningful opportunity at that moment, and was richly rewarded. Holiday, who had hit just two field goals all season, one of them a fortunate banked-in 3-pointer in the season-opener against Memphis, wound up going the rest of the way and playing a crucial role in the Pacers' 97-89 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday.

He finished with 12 points, three rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes, 14 seconds, igniting the fans, his teammates and optimism for his future.

"We don't win this game if he doesn't come in and play this game the way he did at both ends of the floor," McMillan said.

The Hawks are just 3-13 and the Pacers took more than a half to shift into gear, so it wasn't an impressive victory on the surface. But it was the kind of game a team with postseason ambition can hardly afford to lose, even coming 24 hours after another victory and even after leading scorer Victor Oladipo had gone down with a knee injury 4 ½ minutes into the game.

Oladipo had developed a sore right knee in Friday's win over Miami and was questionable for this one. He seemed to be moving freely at the start of the game, but aggravated the injury after he was shoved from behind and went tumbling into the row of photographers at the end of the court. He left the game at the next dead ball with 7:22 remaining and didn't return to the bench.

McMillan said Oladipo's status is day to day and is questionable for Monday's game against Utah at the Fieldhouse. The injury doesn't appear to be serious, however, and his teammates' ability to finally win without their All-Star provided an uplifting element to a game that countered their unfocused first half and their season-high 24 turnovers.

The Pacers were 0-7 last season when Oladipo didn't play, and this game essentially qualified as another one of those games. Winning it, then, seemed meaningful.

"Anytime you can win a game without him, it's like two wins," Darren Collison said.

Bojan Bogdanovic, he of the 52 percent 3-point accuracy, led the Pacers with 22 points. Myles Turner had his first double-double of the season with 10 points and 11 rebounds. His backup, Domantas Sabonis, had nine points and 16 rebounds off the bench and finished the game in a frenzy. Cory Joseph wreaked havoc at both ends of the court with five steals, five assists and seven turnovers.

"I don't want to talk about the turnovers," Joseph said.

Nobody in the locker room was hesitant to talk about Holiday, though. They've seen him go about his business quietly and competently in practice, so nothing about his breakout performance surprised his teammates. Not even when, less than a minute after entering the game, he pulled up in transition and hit what was described on the official stat sheet as a 30-foot 3-pointer from the right wing in transition.

Bedlam ensued after that one, especially on the Pacers bench were the players jumped up and cheered and Turner pranced along the baseline. Holiday hit two more 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, added a layup on a penetrating drive out of the halfcourt offense and hit Sabonis for an uncontested dunk with a drive and behind-the-back assist.

He also played superlative defense, locking down Atlanta rookie Trae Young, who was drafted fifth last summer, 18 spots before he went to the Pacers.

"I try to play both (ends) as hard as I can," Holiday said. "I wasn't worried about either."

Aaron Holiday

Photo Credit: Jessica Hoffman

McMillan told Holiday Saturday morning to be ready because of Oladipo's questionable status. It would have been easy to leave the rookie on the bench in the midst of a tight game, given that he had three veterans capable of playing point guard in Joseph, Collison and Tyreke Evans, but Holiday's worry-free confidence made it easier to give him a chance when the Pacers trailed 67-65 with 3:14 left in the third quarter.

"He's been working hard all training camp and every day during the season to get himself ready to go," McMillan said.

"He kind of calmed us down. He was able to get us into something offensively."

There was nothing calming about Holiday's first 3-pointer, but McMillan was OK with that, too.

"That's the way he plays," he said. "He practiced that way, he played that way in preseason. He's very capable of hitting that shot. All of our guys, we want them to be aggressive. He shot that with confidence, but that's something I've seen before."

So has Holiday, who hit 42 percent of his 3-pointers over three seasons at UCLA.

"I just try to get out there and play my game," he said while sitting in front of his locker afterward. "I know I can hit that. I've worked on it pretty much my whole life. So it's just another shot to me."

Holiday's teammates thought Holiday earned his moment with the effort and attitude he had put into practice. He knew he was stuck behind proven veterans coming into training camp and knows he's still stuck behind them now. But he never stopped working.

"He's a heckuva talent," Collison said. "He's going to be a good player for a very long time in this league. The thing I liked the most is that even when he wasn't playing, he was still working. Most young guys would probably shut it down for a little bit or pout. He stays in the gym and works. He's always positive."

He's also promising. Holiday's two older brothers, Jrue and Justin, have established themselves in the NBA, Jrue with New Orleans and Justin with Chicago. Saturday's game didn't assure Aaron of a future, but provided hope for one. He's a proven perimeter shooter, an aggressive defender, a poised ballhandler and appears to be mature beyond his years. That at least makes for a solid foundation for a point guard's career.

"I've always said, he's better than his draft number," Thad Young said. "He could have been in the top 10. He's done a really good job of waiting his turn and staying poised. He's a Holiday. I've played with all three. I know exactly what he can do. I know how they were raised and I know their mentality."

Holiday knew coming into the season he would be stuck behind proven veterans. He still knows it. Playing time when the game is on the line will continue to be difficult to come by. Saturday's splash can only improve his odds of getting other opportunities, but it hardly guarantees him of anything.

"I don't think I've earned anything yet," he said. "It's just one game. I'll just keep working and see what happens."

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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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