Malcolm Brogdon was the Atlantic Coast Conference's Defensive Player of the Year his senior season at Virginia and hasn't exactly been a slouch defender in the NBA. But it took a couple of Holidays and one of the T.J.'s to do what he couldn't do Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: hold off the one-man onslaught of Kemba Walker.
Walker scored 39 points through three quarters but had just five on 2-of-7 shooting in the fourth when the Pacers overcame a 10-point deficit and closed out a 122-117 victory. It seemed unquestionably to be their best win of the season and it was due mostly to the work of their reserves — particularly the two with the timely names.
Aaron Holiday, who had been yanked back to the bench in Monday's loss to the Clippers, scored 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting. Older brother Justin added 17 as the Pacers reserves outscored Boston's backups, 47-19. The two Holidays and Doug McDermott, in fact, combined to outscore the entire Celtics team in the fourth quarter, 24-23.
"Our bench won this game for us tonight," coach Nate McMillan said.
But not without help from the likes of Brogdon, who hit all 15 free throws on his way to 29 points and added eight assists and one turnover. Domantas Sabonis added his 10th straight double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds and tempted a triple-double with eight assists. He had 5 1/2 minutes to get two more assists, but Brogdon took over the stretch run.
NBA coaches and players tend not to want to rank victories, but this undoubtedly was the best of the season for the Pacers, not to mention the most entertaining of their 25 games. They had beaten just one team with a winning record at the time of the game, Utah, before Wednesday while losing to Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Houston and the Clippers. The Brooklyn Nets had a losing record both times the Pacers played them, but now have a winning record.
Boston seemed intent on piling on another loss as it took a nine-point lead in the first quarter. Walker scored 15 points in that one, mostly on demonic drives to the basket but also a couple of defended 3-pointers. He added nine points in the second and 15 more in the third, after which he had hit 14-of-21 shots and his team led by 10 points.
He rested on the bench in the fourth quarter until 7:19 remained. The Pacers trailed by four points at that point, and Walker's return seemed ominous. But his contributions the rest of the way were meager.
First, a pass that Justin Holiday picked off, then a missed 3-pointer while dribbling off a screen, and then a missed 18-foot step-back shot over Aaron Holiday. He hit a 3-pointer to tie the game with 3 1/2 minutes left after Aaron dropped off him to help Justin defend Jayson Tatum who was dribbling off a screen. But Justin Holiday switched onto him on Boston's next possession and forced him to cough up a pass, which resulted in Jaylen Brown's missed 32-footer at the shot clock buzzer.
Walker missed a 3-pointer that could have given the Celtics a one-point lead with 1:44 remaining, but T.J. Warren used his length and quickness to force a miss. Walker got an uncontested layup with 10.2 seconds left to reduce the Pacers' lead to one point but missed a 33-foot desperate and defended heave with 4.2 seconds left.
Walker finished with a season-high 44 points but was contained by the Pacers' collective defense when it counted most.
"He's tough, man," said Brogdon, who turned 27 on Wednesday. "He's small, he moves so well, he's so shifty, he changes directions, he's so skilled. He's just a really tough guard for me."
But not as much for the Holidays and, on occasion, Warren. Brogdon acknowledged Walker's likely fatigue but gave credit to his faster teammates.
"When you score 30-35 points in the first three quarters you're going to get tired," Brogdon said. "On top of that they applied pressure defensively that I wasn't able to apply in the first three quarters that disrupted him."
Aaron Holiday had no secrets for his success while defending Walker, other than his quickness.
"I don't know, just try to stay in front of him and make the shots tough for him," he said. "That's all we could do."
Aaron Holiday's best game of the season came on the heels of a disappointing outing on Monday.
He missed three shots within the first 79 seconds of the fourth quarter against the Clippers. They were open shots and the Pacers were trailing by 21 points on his second and third efforts, so he was in a hurry to start a comeback. There wouldn't have been a problem if he had hit one or two of the shots, but they looked to be too quick under the circumstances and McMillan subbed him out at a timeout 10 seconds after his third miss.
This time he showed more patience, not to mention more accuracy and defense. He played 26 minutes and 44 seconds, including all 12 of the fourth quarter and the final 3:23 of the third. He had no turnovers and hit two of his three 3-pointers.
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"What Aaron has to do is be aggressive," Justin said. "That's the main thing I always want him to do. He'll learn. When you get in the fire you learn, and he can handle the fire.
"He didn't let (Monday's game) affect him and played his game and helped us get this win."
As did Justin, who played the final 4:50 of the third quarter and all of the fourth. He's now the Pacers' second-best 3-point shooter among the rotation players at .402, trailing only McDermott, who missed both of his 3-point attempts on Wednesday.
This result had to do with free throws more than 3-pointers, though. The Pacers, who had attempted the fewest free throws of any NBA team entering the game, set season highs with 36 attempts and 30 makes. There was some talk in the locker room of a more favorable whistle than in previous games, but that didn't explain everything.
"We were aggressive. We kept attacking," Brogdon said.
Brogdon hit all 15 of his attempts, improving his percentage to .946 (88-of-93) and taking over the league lead from Kyrie Irving. Six of his attempts came in the final 17.1 seconds when the Celtics had to foul to stop the clock, but he got to the line often on his own as well.
"Tonight was a night I was getting calls," he said. "Domas and Myles (Turner) were setting screens for me and I was able to get downhill and make decisions."
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