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Pacers Shine Bright on Halloween on Hallowed Ground

NEW YORK – It wasn't quite Reggie Miller staring down Spike Lee, but a moment from Indiana's win on Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden evoked memories of those halcyon days that Pacers fans remember so well.

Victor Oladipo had just buried the game-clinching 3-pointer from the right corner. On the other end, the Knicks missed a pair of 3-point attempts before Thaddeus Young corralled a rebound and drew a foul with 6.7 seconds remaining and Indiana in front, 106-101.

Oladipo strutted down the court and then along the baseline near the Knicks bench. The All-Star guard clapped his hands together, screamed a short message to the New York fans rushing out to catch the next train home, then waved his hand dismissively as he turned back to high-five Young and Myles Turner.

Yes, the stakes were much lower than when Miller famously flashed the choke sign at Lee in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. This was just the eighth game of the 2018-19 season and frankly, this version of the Knicks isn't very good (Wednesday's loss dropped them to just 2-6).

But the way the Pacers grinded out a win on Wednesday and the stage on which they did it – playing on national TV on Halloween in the world's most famous arena – suggested that this could be the type of springboard victory that helps a team start to build serious momentum.

Each of the Pacers' previous four wins this season had been of the blowout variety. Those are nice, but the true test of a team is how they respond in the face of adversity.

The Blue & Gold passed an early-semester exam on Wednesday.

The Knicks led for most of the second half, including a three-point advantage with three minutes to play. But the Pacers fought back and made winning plays down the stretch, just enough to come away with the victory.

"It was a team effort tonight," Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said after the victory. "It was a lot of guys…We finally were able to get a lead and then we got the stops we needed."

Indeed, the heroes of Wednesday's game were threefold.

First, there was Domantas Sabonis.

The 22-year-old center had it going early. He checked in for the first time with 4:52 remaining in the first quarter and grabbed a defensive rebound 11 seconds later. 12 seconds after that, he put back a miss from Darren Collison for his first points of the night.

Domantas Sabonis

Domantas Sabonis was a force inside all night for the Pacers. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

He grabbed another rebound on the next possession, then converted a finger roll off a dish from Tyreke Evans on the other end.

But he was just getting started. Remarkably, the 6-11 Lithuanian scored on each of his first five offensive possessions against the Knicks.

The only thing that could slow him down was foul trouble. Sabonis picked up his third foul with 9:41 left in the second quarter, forcing him to the bench for the remainder of the first half. He had played just 7:11, but had already amassed 15 points on 7-of-7 shooting and pulled down seven rebounds.

Sabonis didn't check back in until the 4:16 mark in the third quarter, but he picked up where he left off, scoring 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting over the remainder of the frame.

He then played most of the fourth quarter before fouling out with 1:17 left on the clock. In just 21:26 of playing time, Sabonis matched his career high with 30 points and made all 12 of his shots, setting a franchise record for most makes without a miss. He also pulled down nine boards, three on the offensive glass.

He was a terror all evening to the Knicks, taking out more defenders than Michael Myers on Halloween night. A large chunk of Indiana's 64 points in the paint could be credited to Sabonis' bruising post play.

"In the pick-and-roll, Coach really emphasized being aggressive and going downhill, not settling for the midrange jumper," Sabonis said. "Just go downhill and if the guard makes a read, either lay it up or drop it off to the big."

If Sabonis seemed like a slasher villain to Knicks fans, Oladipo was literally a superhero.

The All-Star guard arrived at Madison Square Garden in a Black Panther costume, mask and all. Supposedly it was the first time Oladipo ever dressed up for Halloween (he wasn't allowed to as a kid).

For the first half of Wednesday's game, Oladipo didn't look the part.

Battling bronchitis, he struggled with his shot and got into foul trouble early, scoring just five points on 2-of-6 shooting (1-of-4 from 3-point range) over the first two quarters. Meanwhile, his New York counterpart, Tim Hardaway Jr., racked up 17 first-half points.

Victor Oladipo

Victor Oladipo once again played the role of closer on Wednesday night. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

But like T'Challa coming to reclaim his throne from Killmonger (probably should have said spoiler alert, but if you haven't seen "Black Panther" yet, that's on you), Oladipo came out with a vengeance in the second half.

He went 8-for-12 and scored 19 points after halftime, including nine of the final 11 for Indiana.

"He listened to his teammates and kept shooting," Young said. "That's one of the biggest things.

"I told him after one of the timeouts, I said, 'It's going to fall. Don't worry about it. There's going to come a point in the game when we're going to need you to knock down a shot.'"

Oladipo delivered when it mattered most ("I think he's waiting for those moments every game," Sabonis said afterwards), but arguably his biggest play started on the defensive end.

McMillan switched defensive-minded guard Cory Joseph onto Hardaway for much of the fourth quarter. But after Hardaway made a jumper to give the Knicks a 97-94 lead with 3:08 to play, Oladipo asked to guard the Knicks' leading scorer again.

After a pair of Sabonis free throws, Oladipo picked up Hardaway on the next possession and picked his pocket, then raced ahead for an uncontested dunk that gave the Pacers the lead for good.

His three with 1:23 remaining pushed the margin to six and appeared to be the proverbial dagger, but the Knicks mounted one last charge.

After fouling Sabonis out, Hardaway made two free throws. Noah Vonleh then blocked Oladipo and an Allonzo Trier layup trimmed the margin to 103-101 with 44 seconds to play.

That brings us to the third member of Wednesday's Pacers triumvirate, Young, who made the biggest play of the night.

Thaddeus Young

Thaddeus Young stuffed the stat sheet in several categories, but his lone assist was the most important play of the game. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

The Pacers called timeout after Trier's basket to set up a play. They wound up getting a good look, as Oladipo passed to a wide-open Bojan Bogdanovic at the top of the 3-point arc.

But Bogdanovic, normally a reliable sharpshooter, came up woefully short.

Fortunately for the Pacers, Young raced in to wrangle in the ball before it went out of bounds. The 12-year-veteran leapt into the air, palmed the ball with his left hand, and somehow dished to Oladipo in the corner for the game-clinching three.

"Thad made an amazing play," Oladipo marveled. "The way he rebounded the ball, the only place he could really throw it to was the corner. I just got there, he made a great play, and I hit a big shot."

"Being in the corner, you see a lot of different things that go on," Young said. "You see shots going short, you see them going long and you have the ability to come out of the corner and get tip outs to guys.

"I (saw) the ball. It gave a good bounce and I jumped up and just picked who I wanted to throw it to…I (saw) Vic move to the corner and I thought, 'Okay, that's perfect.'"

It was the kind of hustle play fans have come to expect from Young, in his second year as team co-captain.

The do-everything forward had another one of his trademark stat lines on Wednesday – 13 points, 10 rebounds, five steals, three blocks, and that one crucial assist – all without hardly a single play called for him.

"He does a lot of stuff that people don't really notice," Oladipo said. "He does a lot of great stuff. He's one of those glue guys that you really need on your team."

McMillan loves to preach the importance of his team being "road tough," able to go into a hostile environment and find a way to win, even on nights when shots aren't falling or they aren't getting calls.

Eight games into the season, this Pacers team is still developing its "road toughness," but they appeared to take a step in the right direction on Wednesday night.