Lamb, Justin Holiday Face New Challenges
Hopefully not, but certainly perhaps, the lasting memory Pacers fans will have of Jeremy Lamb's time with the franchise will be two free throws. Not game-winners or game-changers, but the two in Toronto that turned out to be meaningless to the outcome but reflective of his toughness.
Now the challenge is two-fold: for Lamb to endure a long recovery and rehabilitation period and for the Pacers to find a way to be even more competitive without him.
Lamb suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn lateral meniscus, and lateral bone fracture with 9:54 left in the second quarter of Sunday's loss at Toronto after he was hit from behind on a breakaway dunk attempt by Raptors guard Terence Davis.
Lamb landed awkwardly on his left leg, the knee absorbing the full force of the impact. It looked bad at first, as indicated by television color commentator Quinn Buckner's immediate and solemn response: "Oh, boy." But then it looked like he might not be hurt too badly. Lamb didn't writhe in pain, just merely sat up, held his knee, and refused T.J. McConnell's offer to help him up as teammates gathered around him.
Lamb eventually limped to the foul line and calmly made two free throws. It was a moment of "Mamba Mentality" similar to that of Kobe Bryant, who hit two foul shots for the Lakers after rupturing his Achilles tendon in 2012. McConnell then committed an intentional foul to stop the clock and Lamb limped to the locker room, arm-in-arm with athletic trainer Josh Corbeil.
The hope then was that he would be able to return to the game.
"He thought he could walk and move on it," Pacers coach Nate McMillan recalled. "You're hoping it's a stinger and he can get out and get some treatment and get back."
Lamb, who signed a three-season contract with the Pacers last summer, won't play again until next season, perhaps not until some point during the season. His teammates are optimistic he'll put in the work to make a complete recovery, though, partly because of those free throws.
"That was incredible," Myles Turner said following Tuesday's 39-point victory over Charlotte. "Step up there and block everything out...a testament to his mental toughness."
Lamb, who watched the victory over the Hornets from a Bankers Life Fieldhouse suite with his girlfriend, Hali Eplin, and their infant daughter, Halo, had been doing what he was signed to do: filling in as a starter for Victor Oladipo and then stepping back to join the second unit upon Oladipo's return. He has averaged 12.5 points on 45 percent shooting, rebounded his position well, and been an above-average defender. He brought length and versatility to the lineup and a deadpan sense of humor to the locker room.
With Oladipo missing the previous two games with a lower back strain, Aaron Holiday has stepped into the starting lineup. But Lamb's absence will bring a greater enhanced opportunity for older brother Justin after Oladipo returns.
Justin's performance on Tuesday was easy to miss amid the near-triples-doubles of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, T.J. Warren's 9-of-12 shooting exhibition, and Malcolm Brogdon's solid all-around game, but it was important. He finished with 16 points, three assists, two steals, and no turnovers and hit 6-of-12 shots despite making just 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter, long after the game had been decided.
Holiday has played mostly as a "four" when the Pacers go small with their second unit but considers himself a better fit at shooting guard or small forward. He took a while to adapt to the change against the Hornets, but looks forward to playing it more often.
"That's my natural position," he said. "There's a certain way I'm thinking when I'm in the game when I'm the four. I had to think about it a little bit, but once you get out there and play it all comes back."
It's possible Lamb's absence will be felt mostly as a dilutor of the Pacers' depth. Justin Holiday appears capable of bringing as much production to the position as Lamb, although in different ways. He doesn't shoot as well as Lamb overall but has a better 3-point percentage. Holiday, in fact, is the rare Pacer who has improved his accuracy from behind the arc this season, shooting a career-high 42 percent — second only to Doug McDermott.
Holiday also ranks higher than Lamb in the advanced analytics with a better efficiency rating and has the best defensive rating on the roster. He in fact was brought in primarily as a defender when he signed a one-season deal over the summer. His e-point shooting has been a bonus, and will be badly needed the rest of the season.
Holiday and Lamb are next-door neighbors in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse locker room and carry on running dialogue after games — most of it friendly trash talk. The nature of their relationship changes now, along with their roles. Their futures remain to be seen.
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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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