In his pregame press conference prior to Friday's game, Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle was asked to assess his team's play at the quarter-point of the season. In his response, Carlisle reiterated what was become a common refrain from him.
"We've thought from the very beginning that because of the way we're structured with a lot of really good players and not a supposed 'superstar'-type player, that we're going to have to be a team that does it together," Carlisle said.
It's a message Carlisle has hammered home during his media availabilities in recent weeks. And it's one that his players seem to be starting to embrace.
Indeed, the Pacers aren't built to ride any one player to victory. Sure, they have several guys capable of going for 30 on any given night, but they are at their best when the ball is moving and everyone gets involved.
"It's big, especially for us," Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis said of the importance of a balanced attack. "We have so many guys. We have a lot of talent — a lot of guys can score. If we share the ball, everyone is going to make the right decision."
The box score from Friday's 114-97 win over Toronto was perhaps the most balanced all season. Seven players in double figures, four with 15 points or more. Three starters with double-doubles.
Add it all up and it's no surprise that it led to a runaway victory over a Raptors team that had beaten Indiana twice earlier in the season.
Look up and down the stat sheet and you can find significant contributions from virtually every player that saw the floor.
Sabonis was a monster on the offensive glass, tallying 23 points and a season-high 18 rebounds, seven of them offensive, for his 10th double-double in his last 12 games.
Caris LeVert, who had averaged just 8.3 points over his past four contests, rediscovered his scoring touch with 19 points, going 3-for-5 from 3-point range.
Myles Turner wasn't just swatting shots, he was shot-faking, side-stepping, and swishing threes in a 17-point, 10-rebounds, two-block performance.
Kelan Martin (15 points), Chris Duarte (12 points and six rebounds), and Torrey Craig (11 points) all reached double figures off the bench.
And then there were the two point guards, Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. McConnell, who combined for 19 assists and just three turnovers. Brogdon had 11 points and a season-high 12 assists, while McConnell was his usual catalyst off the bench, dishing out seven assists and also forcing three steals.
"It's the best way to play," Turner said. "It's fun for everybody this way. Everybody gets their touches, everybody's scoring the ball. I think we've done a better job of that this year.
"At times in the past, it's not even so much selfish basketball – I think it's 'I've got to do it myself.' I think we've had that with some of our guys and with the team as a whole. Guys think they've got to be the man in a sense. And I think we've done a better job this year of everybody being the man. Everybody comes in, everybody contributes in their own ways."
One sequence early in the fourth quarter seemingly summed up Friday's team effort.
The Raptors had scored five straight points to trim what was once a 13-point Pacers lead to 92-86 as the clock ticked under the 10-minute mark.
Brogdon had the ball at the top of the key and suddenly exploded to the rim. He drew three defenders to the paint, creating a lane for him to kick to a wide-open Duarte in the left corner. For once, the rookie couldn't get a big shot to fall, but Martin flew in to grab the offensive rebound, then kicked back to LeVert at the top of the key. LeVert buried the trey.
The next time down the floor, Brogdon fed Sabonis in the paint. The big fella went to work, hoisting and hitting a left-handed hook shot over Precious Achiuwa. One possession later, Brogdon faked a pass to Duarte on the left wing and cruised down the lane for a layup, capping a 7-0 run over a 59-second span that featured contributions from all five players on the floor.
Just like that, the lead was back to 13, and Toronto never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
Photo Credit: Matt Kryger
Several paragraphs could be devoted to each individual player's contributions on Friday, but two performances were particularly of note.
It has been a slow start to the season to LeVert, who was a dynamic playmaker in his first half-season in Indiana last year, but has been hampered this fall by a back injury that prevented him from participating in training camp or the start of the regular season. Over his first 12 games entering Friday, LeVert had averaged 13.7 points and was shooting just 20.8 percent from 3-point range.
Against Toronto, however, he excelled, knocking down shots and logging a season-high 34 minutes.
"It's obvious that he's a very important part of our team," Carlisle said. "We've made some adjustments to get him in some more attacking situations. He responded really I thought brilliantly tonight."
"It honestly didn't feel like 34 minutes," LeVert added "...I felt good. The minutes felt great, my body feels good."
Meanwhile, Martin continued to be the feel-good story of the season. The former Butler star didn't even have a guaranteed contract entering training camp, but not only did he make the team, he has earned a spot in Carlisle's rotation thanks to his strong two-way play.
Martin was sensational yet again on Friday, playing dogged defense for 23 minutes off the bench. Offensively, he took over in the second quarter, scoring 11 points during a 15-2 Indiana run to take the lead for good.
The Pacers outscored Toronto by 20 points when Martin was on the floor, the best plus/minus of any player on Friday.
Martin's breakthrough in his third NBA season has not surprised those inside the Pacers locker room. Carlisle noted that Martin scored over 2,000 career points and graduated from Butler second on the program's scoring list. Turner, meanwhile, called Martin "one of the better scorers we have on this team" and referenced Martin hitting big shots years ago to beat Turner's teams in both high school and college.
"I know what he's capable of," Turner said. "I've seen it for a long time now. Now that he's finally getting his opportunity, it's dope to see it all come to fruition for him."
Defensively, it was a rough start for the Pacers on Friday, as they gave up 35 points to Toronto in the first quarter on 14-of-22 shooting (6-of-9 from 3-point range).
But they buckled down over the final three quarters, holding the visitors to 62 points and limiting them to just 34.7 percent shooting over the remainder of the game.
"We just picked up our intensity," Carlisle said. "We were playing harder, playing more physically. We were agitators instead of reactors, which you have to be in this league."
With that lockdown defense and a balanced offensive attack, the Pacers appear to have the blueprint to string together wins. Now, they just have to do it.
They have certainly been better in November, going 8-6 after a 1-6 start to the season, but still find themselves looking at up at a number of teams in the Eastern Conference standings. But there is optimism that they're starting to round into form and with 11 of their next 15 games at home, a real opportunity to start a real surge.
"I feel like we're right there," LeVert said. "We're close to a breakthrough…It's the NBA. It's a lot of one, two-possession games that we'll definitely get on the back end and we'll learn from. We're together right now and we're getting better each and every game."