Charlotte center Dwight Howard was really good Monday night, finishing with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and two assists. He was no match for the Pacers' two-headed center, however, which collected 33 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists, not to mention a victory.
In tandem, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner can do that sort of thing. And, one of the best things the Pacers have going for them is that they don't mind being a tandem, in no particular order.
Turner played a second consecutive game off the bench after missing nine with a sore right elbow, and looked rust-free while scoring 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Sabonis, who has started the past 11 games, finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and several bruises and scratches from engaging Howard in hand-to-hand (and hip-to-hip) combat during their intimate moments together on the court.
Soon, perhaps even as early as Wednesday's game against Memphis, roles will be restored. Turner will start, and Sabonis will come off the bench. But Turner is in no hurry for that to happen, and Sabonis will be fine with it when it does.
"Whenever Coach sees fit," Turner said after the Pacers' 105-96 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "Domas is doing a helluva job in that starting lineup right now. I guess whenever Coach is ready to put me back in there, I'll be ready."
Regardless of who starts and who comes off the bench, Turner and Sabonis make up one of the NBA's best combinations of centers. They still will play together for a handful of minutes per game, but McMillan is dedicated to having at least one of them one the floor at almost all times the rest of this season — for multiple reasons, starting with defense.
Between the two of them, the bases are covered, as Howard learned the hard way. He scored just four points and grabbed four rebounds in the second half, and didn't manage any of either in his 7 1/2 minutes fourth-quarter minutes.
Sabonis made Howard work for most of what he got around the basket, especially in the second half. He was called for a foul away from the ball while wrestling with Howard midway through the period. Charlotte wound up scoring on that possession to pull within six points, but Sabonis drew a charging foul from Howard on the Hornets' next possession when Howard drove the lane from the left wing.
Sabonis jumped up, lifted his arms and shouted to celebrate that individual victory. He picked up his fourth foul moments later, so Turner replaced him with 4:34 left and promptly drained his fourth 3-pointer to open a 10-point lead for the Pacers.
One of them fights you, the other finesses you.
"I love playing with Domas," Turner said. "I almost feel bad, because he does all the dirty work. He leaves the easy stuff for me, but I think we play very well off of each other."
Sabonis doesn't mind. Although he has a better 3-point percentage than Turner, even after Monday's game, he's better-suited for combat. All the starter minutes he's received this season in Turner's absence have given him experience against some of the NBA's best big men and exposed him to a variety of challenges. He takes it all in stride, even being knocked down.
"At the end of the day, you're just doing your job: screening, rolling, trying to finish, trying to guard...I just want to win, so I just try to do my job," he said.
Sabonis' approach enabled coach Nate McMillan to play Howard straight up, rather than risk double-teams that left open 3-point shooters. Darren Collison floated too far toward Howard to give help to Thaddeus Young less than a minute into the third quarter, which allowed Howard to toss out a pass to Kemba Walker for a 3-pointer that tied the game.
Lesson learned. It didn't happen again. With so few easy opportunities, the Hornets hit just 4-of-19 3-pointers in the second half, after hitting 5-of-12 in the first.
"We felt double-teaming would give up 3-point baskets," McMillan said. "We just wanted to stay square on him and keep a body between him and the basket. He was scoring, but we still had the lead."
McMillan also tried to play Turner against Howard as often as possible, to draw Howard away from the basket and open the foul lane for cutters, or leave Turner open for 3-point shots.
"I felt we could get some things offensively with Myles (playing outside) and Howard defending the paint," McMillan said.
Turner went to the St. Vincent Center practice facility on Sunday to get up shots to grow more accustomed to his brace, which he wore underneath a black sleeve.
"I came in here yesterday, even though I wasn't supposed to," he said. "Oh, well. It helped to get used to shooting with the brace."
How many shots?
"I'm not going to say, because they're going to get mad when they watch this (interview)," he said.
Sabonis and Turner, when rolling, make life easier for all their teammates, in a variety of ways. No one appreciates that more than Victor Oladipo, who had a rather quiet 25 points against the Hornets while hitting 11-of-15 shots.
"It's huge," Oladipo said of the big man contributions. "It's difficult for other teams, because they have to figure out ways to guard both of them, and it's two different ways. When those guys are effective they make the game a lot easier for us guards. It's great to have that tandem.
"And, they're like 12 years old, so it's pretty awesome."
Not 12. More like 21. But you get the point. They're young, and should only get better for years to come. They provide a double dose of optimism for the Pacers' potential, both short-term and long-term, and Glenn Robinson III's imminent return — sometime in February — adds to that.
"When we get everybody healthy, especially when Glenn comes back, we'll be a really, really tough team to beat," Thad Young said. "We're already a really, really tough team to beat, (but) with Myles coming back it makes it 10 times better."
It's impossible to know where being "really, really tough" can take the Pacers this season. But their tag team centers will have a lot to do with selecting a destination.
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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