Given the way it turned out, a victory coming despite the loss of three of their top four players, all those injuries could be considered a blessing. Short-term, anyway.
Without Victor Oladipo, without Myles Turner, without Edmond Sumner and, most recently, without Domantas Sabonis, the Pacers were going to need contributions from semi-anonymous sources to beat Chicago on Sunday. They got them. And now two or three of them can take an added measure of confidence into the next game.
T.J. Warren scored a season-high 26 points, TJ Leaf grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and Aaron Holiday had his first good game of the season in the Pacers’ 108-95 victory over the Bulls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. With three straight wins and a 3-3 record, they can, in a sense, start the season over from sea level and look ahead with earned optimism. If they start getting more players back than they lose.
“We’ve shown some toughness,” coach Nate McMillan said, looking back on six games played without Oladipo, three without Sumner, two and nearly a third without Turner, and one without Sabonis. “We’ve had to adapt in these games. Defensively we’ve been (improving). Offensively we’ve been more organized. We’re not playing frantic out there.”
Sabonis became the latest to join the street-clothed brigade on the Pacers’ bench, having suffered a bruised left calf in Friday’s victory over Cleveland. His absence forced rookie Goga Bitadze into the starting lineup for the first time. JaKarr Sampson, who had not played until Friday’s game, also made his first start of the season to try to make up for the loss of rebounding.
Bitadze, who had scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds on Friday, was on his way to another promising production with nine points and four blocked shots but committed too many rookie fouls and lasted just 19 minutes. That created a situation ripe for someone to emerge, and that turned out to be Warren more than anyone. Although he had showed increasing comfort through the first four games, scoring 10, 12, 19 and 20 points, Warren managed just three points on 1-of-8 shooting on Friday and needed a reboot.
He played more freely in this one, hitting 10-of-16 shots and doing what he does best: creating shots in the lane and along the baseline. He hit just 1-of-4 three-pointers and is now 2-of-16 on the season, an unexpected development for someone who hit 40 percent of his attempts last season, but he has plenty of time to heal that wound.
“It’s definitely been a process,” Warren said. “Just trying to figure out how I can fit in and be effective.
“Thinking (too much) a little bit. I just want to relax and slow down a little bit and do what I do best.”
Warren, who scored 24 points through the first three quarters, was slowed in the fourth by a bruised hip, but said he should be fine for Tuesday’s game at Charlotte. He also will be fine with playing either forward position. He played some at “four” on Sunday, same as he played last season in Phoenix, but will play “three” this season when Turner and Sabonis are available.
Leaf was supposed to be playing “four” when Sabonis was out, and started there on Friday. He played his way out of the starting lineup in that game by missing all four shots and struggling to deal with Cleveland’s size around the basket.
He might have played his way back into it on Sunday, though, for as long as either Turner or Sabonis is going to be out. Leaf scored 13 points on 6-of-13 shooting, a major upgrade considering he had hit just 4-of-15 shots entering the game. His 15 rebounds, six of them at the offensive end, were the more important contribution, though, and a major reason the Pacers outrebounded the Bulls (49-43) without Turner and Sabonis.
Holiday had struggled to score even more than Leaf heading into the game, hitting just 1-of-16 shots in the three games he appeared. Scoring nine points and hitting 2-of-3 three-pointers shed some of the doubts about him and offered hope for fewer DNP-CD’s in the box score.
“Sometimes you just need to see the ball go through the basket,” McMillan said.
The Pacers never trailed by more than two points and led by as many as 16. They didn’t hit enough three-pointers (just 8-of-26) to put the Bulls away, but never seemed in danger of losing the game, either. Their teamwork and defense remained too consistent for that to happen. They had 28 assists despite missing 18 three-pointers and limited the Bulls to 42 percent shooting.
Malcolm Brogdon was his usual self, scoring 22 points and passing out seven assists, and Jeremy Lamb played a solid all-around game despite hitting just 1-of-6 shots. He finished with six rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and one turnover.
The reserve unit was as collectively responsible for the victory as the starters, however, by maintaining the lead and the tempo with no drop-off defensively.
When three players intended to come off the bench are in the starting lineup, the restructured second unit is bound to be a mashup. Who could have predicted a lineup of Leaf, Aaron Holiday, Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott would ever share the court at the same time? But they did, fairly extensively, and each played at least 17 minutes. There was even a brief stretch late in the third quarter when both Holidays and all three T.J.’s were in the game together.
“We’ve had some guys dropping like flies here for a while,” said McConnell, who had four rebounds, four assists, a steal and no turnovers in his 17 ½ minutes. “It’s exciting to see us all step up and kind of hold down the fort for those guys until they come back.”
It’s early in the season, and it’s going to continue to be early as long as the Pacers have to keep shuffling lineups to accommodate injuries. Suitable chemistry is a long way off. They also have yet to test themselves against an elite team, and perhaps won’t until they meet Milwaukee on Nov. 16.
Sunday’s game, though, gave more players the opportunity to establish themselves as genuine contributors and offered the best reason yet for optimism.
“It’s a whole new system,” Warren said. “Guys have been together probably like a month and a half now, so we’re still learning each other and everybody’s still getting comfortable with each other. But we know where we want to be and we know we can keep getting better.”
Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at email@example.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.
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.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.