Improved, Poised Holiday Lights Another Spark

As far as he's concerned, he's "just out there hooping, pretty much."

As far as his brother is concerned, he's "just being confident."

As far as Myles Turner is concerned, "he just goes out there and does him."

Without any deep insight to explain it, we'll just have to accept the fact Aaron Holiday is playing better than at any other time in his young career. Because he's gaining experience, mostly, but also because the coach hasn't hesitated to sit him down when he gets carried away.

Holiday turned in a third consecutive strong performance in the Pacers' 107-85 victory over Charlotte at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday, leading another strong bench performance that not only overwhelmed the Hornets' reserves but outshined the Pacers' starters as well.

T.J. McConnell was his usual efficient self with 12 points and eight assists with nary a turnover and Justin Holiday was his usual solid self with nine points and two steals and Doug McDermott was his usual coach's son self with six points while hitting two-of-four 3-pointers and grabbing five rebounds. But it was Holiday who did the most damage with 23 points — one off his career high — six rebounds and another strong defensive performance.

And it's Holiday who deserves the Comeback Player of the Season award, if such a thing existed. Not for how he's playing compared to last season, but how he's playing compared to the start of the season.

Remember how that went? He played so poorly in the first half of the season-opening loss to Detroit by missing all six shot attempts in a mere 6 minutes and 44 seconds that he was benched not only for the second half of that game but for the next two games as well.

He also played poorly in the next two after returning, giving him a three-game summary of 29 minutes, 1-of-16 shooting (1-of-4 3-pointers) and three turnovers.

Fast forward to the present tense and his most recent three games have resulted in 70 minutes, 19-of-30 shooting (5-of-10 three-pointers) and two turnovers.

You might attribute Holiday’s current run in part to another bold move by McMillan. Holiday took three quick perimeter shots at the start of the fourth quarter in the Pacers' loss to the Clippers last Monday and was pulled back to the bench for the rest of the game. Since then, his decision-making has improved dramatically.

"Sometimes making those mistakes he made earlier helps (a player grow)," Justin Holiday said. "One thing about us Holidays, we don't make the same mistake more than once. I just think the time out there learning and messing up has helped him get to where he is now."

Added McConnell: "The true definition of a pro is how you respond after that. He's come back and played his best basketball."

At both ends. Holiday played a major role in containing Boston’s Kemba Walker last Wednesday and Atlanta’s Trae Young on Friday. Charlotte didn’t have a singular threat such as those two but its starting guards, Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, combined to hit 4-of-30 shots.

Holiday had something to do with that because he's matched up more often against starters lately. He played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter against the Celtics, 8 1/2 minutes of it against the Hawks and 9 1/2 minutes against the Hornets. He was pulled on Sunday with the outcome well in hand to get Alize Johnson onto the court.

When pressed, Holiday does acknowledge he's doing more than "just hooping."

"Just slowing down out there," he said. "Not trying to play at one speed, changing my pace."

Holiday's improvement has been helped by his growing chemistry with McConnell, who, frankly, is easy to mix with. McConnell plays in constant attack mode, always looking for someone to pass to without giving up his dribble. Stay mobile, get open and he'll find you. Three of Holiday's six field goals came on assists from McConnell, including both in the fourth quarter.

"I just see a more confident player," said McConnell, who finished with 12 points and eight assists without a turnover. "We all know how good he is, he knows how good he is, and he's just translating that onto the floor. He's playing great basketball."

The four rotation fixtures of the second unit are usually joined by Sabonis, who is the first starter to be subbed out in the first quarter and then returns to play with the reserves. That group plays faster and looser than the starters, and lately has played better. It's playing against lineups consisting mostly of reserves, of course, so the caliber of competition must be considered.

The starters are impressively balanced with their scoring — all had between six and nine points at halftime — but coach Nate McMillan likes the change of pace the reserves bring.

"The combination of (Aaron Holiday and McConnell), the tempo changes for us," McMillan said. "They've been a spark for us this short season, bringing energy to the game. A pace that speeds us up."

Sabonis doesn't care who he plays with or against. But he's grown to appreciate playing with the reserves.

"We just have his chemistry going on where we know the exact plays we're going to run every time and we just try to execute," he said. "It's a fun group to play with."

It all has amounted to an 18-9 record for the Pacers, surely superior to what most people would have predicted for them without Victor Oladipo. They'll need all the balance, all the tempo and all the improvement that can muster in upcoming holiday season, though. The Lakers come to The Fieldhouse on Tuesday with a 24-3 record, best in the Western Conference. Four other major challenges follow quickly: at Milwaukee next Sunday, at home the next night against Toronto, at Miami on the 27th, and home against Philadelphia on New Year's Eve.

As happy as he might be with his team's current state, McMillan isn't celebrating anything.

"We're not where we want to be or where we need to be at the end of the season," he said. "(There's) a lot of basketball to be played. We'll see where we are again on Tuesday."

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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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