Sabonis, Turner Both Questionable vs Hornets

Nov. 5, 2019 - Nate McMillan says that Domantas Sabonis (calf) and Myles Turner (ankle) are both questionable for Tuesday night's game in Charlotte, then discusses the keys to the game.

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Sabonis, Turner Both Questionable vs Hornets

Nov. 5, 2019 - Nate McMillan says that Domantas Sabonis (calf) and Myles Turner (ankle) are both questionable for Tuesday night's game in Charlotte, then discusses the keys to the game.
Nov 5, 2019  |  01:09

Pacers Embracing "Next Man Up" Mentality

November 4, 2019 - T.J. McConnell, JaKarr Sampson and Nate McMillan discuss how the team is succeeding despite numerous injuries.
Nov 4, 2019  |  01:25

Playing Time Brings Out Leaf's Colors

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

TJ Leaf doesn't want to admit to it, but his teammates have sensed it — and addressed it.

Leaf had a breakout performance in the Pacers' victory over Chicago on Sunday, one that for a while at least lowered the volume of his doubters and presumably boosted his confidence. His 13 points and career-high 15 rebounds in less than 22 minutes amounted to one of the best games of his career and were critical to a victory that came without the services of starters Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner and rotation backup Edmond Sumner.

It also was a drastic change of pace after not playing in last Wednesday's victory at Brooklyn and then failing to take advantage of his second career start in Friday's win over Cleveland by going scoreless in eight minutes. One would naturally assume Sunday's game provided an emotional lift, but Leaf didn't want to go there afterward.

"I pretty much have good confidence all the time; I think I've said that before," he said. "I was just going out there and playing my game. That's all I was doing."

His teammates and coach Nate McMillan have offered an alternative perspective. They reacted to Leaf's performance like his personal booster club, both during and after the game.

Take this particular moment on Sunday: Leaf, having entered the game midway through the first quarter for center Goga Bitadze, missed a 10-footer, missed a tip, and then missed an open 3-pointer. But, with 42.7 seconds left, he took a one-handed bounce pass through traffic from T.J. McConnell for an uncontested dunk that brought a timeout from Bulls coach Jim Boylen.

It was as simple a play as a 6-foot-10 NBA player can make and, truthfully, McConnell was more deserving of praise for his pass. But as Leaf walked calmly from the opposite end of the court toward the Pacers' bench, McConnell was waiting for him at midcourt to slap hands and shout a few words of encouragement. Then Jeremy Lamb met him to offer a celebratory chest bump.
McConnell recalled the moment in the locker room afterward.

"It's all about his confidence," McConnell said. "He has to go in knowing he can affect the game like that. This game was big for him.

"I'm always in his ear to stay confident and just play his game. Don't try to do too much or play outside of his comfort zone. When guys force the issue, it starts to pile on a little bit."

Pacers fans understandably have grown tired of reading that Leaf had shown considerable improvement in the summer workouts and training camp practices when they weren't seeing the results of it in games. Sunday's game ultimately will stand as an aberration or proof of the claims from teammates, which McConnell repeated.

"He worked extremely hard this summer and he was great in training camp," he said. "I'm a firm believer there's 82 games and you're not going to play great in all 82. It's about how you respond when you struggle a little bit and I think he was a pro tonight by the way he stepped up and affected the game."

When Leaf entered the NBA in 2017, it was uncertain which forward position would suit him best. His height and jumping ability said power forward, his slight build and 47 percent 3-point accuracy in his only season at UCLA said small forward. The irony, then, is that he thrived at center in a small lineup on Sunday.

McMillan will go with the same starting lineup he used on Sunday in Tuesday's game at Charlotte, meaning JaKarr Sampson will start alongside Bitadze on the front line and Leaf will come off the bench. If Domantas Sabonis, who sat out practice on Monday but will travel with the team, is able to play, he will start and either Bitadze or Sampson will play off the bench.

Either way, Leaf will get a chance to show some consistency.

"I hope (Sunday's game) makes a huge difference for him," McMillan said. "He didn't have good games the first couple of games. I thought he did a solid job. Without him playing as well as he did, I don't think we win that game. It's something he can build off of, we can build off of.

"We believe in him."

Leaf's erratic shooting has been a mystery, given his percentages in high school, at UCLA and in his rookie season with the Pacers, when he hit 43 percent (18-of-42) of his 3-point shots. He made just 26 percent of them last season and was 1-of-4 over his first three appearances this season. That made the one he hit from out top in the third quarter of Sunday's game seem like a bigger deal than it ordinarily would have been.

His teammates on the bench stood and cheered it. Leaf, characteristically, shrugged it off.

"I was open, so I took it," he said. "I'm going to do that every time."

Leaf's reputation has hinged largely on his shooting accuracy, which has hinged mostly on playing time.

In the one game of his NBA career that he played more than 30 minutes, the final game of last season at Atlanta, he hit 12-of-19 shots, missed both 3-pointers, and scored 28 points.
In the five games in which he's played 20-29 minutes, he shot 51 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3-point line.

In the 38 games he's played 10-19 minutes, he hit 51 percent of his shots and 42 percent of his 3-pointers.

Spot playing time has delivered a blow to his percentages. In the 72 games in which he's played less than 10 minutes he's hit 45 percent of his field goal attempts and 27 percent of his 3-pointers.

Those 22 missed 3-pointers seem to have made an outsized impression on some fans. They also have impacted Leaf's confidence. He's admitted that the short bursts of playing time affected his shot last season, and that somewhere along the way it went flat. He tried to restore the arc in the offseason, but this season has brought mixed results so far.

The current run of injuries will create more opportunities for extended playing time, making this a crucial stretch of Leaf's career. Defense will always be a struggle, but regardless of whether his shots are dropping, rebounding should be a constant. Leaf's length, fast-twitch jumping muscles and instincts around the rim won't fluctuate as much as his shooting touch.

"He's really athletic," McConnell said. "I'm not sure guys realize how athletic he is until you're right up next to him and he's skying for rebounds and blocking shots and dunking the ball.

"Then he steps out and makes the three, which he can do."

More than ever, he has the opportunity to keep doing it.


Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.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.

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