Sabonis, Turner Looking to Resume Productive Partnership

The primary task for the Pacers within their Orlando bubble is to regain the harmony they were humming when the season was suspended. Perhaps you remember: eight victories, including five on the road, in their previous 11 games.

For that to happen, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner likely will have to recapture and resume their chemistry, particularly in light of the expected absence of Victor Oladipo. Coach Nate McMillan says he was growing increasingly comfortable with their pairing, and the nuanced numbers make it easy to understand why.

During that 11-game stretch, which began with a victory over Milwaukee just prior to the All-Star break, Sabonis and Turner combined to average 31.2 points, 20.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 3.5 blocks. Sabonis gets nearly all the credit for the assists and Turner gets nearly all the credit for the blocks, but they were each contributing a healthy number of points and rebounds.

Better yet, in the final three games before the season was suspended — which consisted of wins at Chicago and Dallas and a homecourt loss to Boston in which a frantic comeback fell just short — Sabonis and Turner combined to average 39.7 points, 22.4 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 3.7 blocks.

One might say things were going so well between the two that it took a global pandemic to stop them. But now they have a chance to reunite and continue honing the chemistry that could have a major impact on the Pacers' future beyond this season.

"Those guys had adapted to what teams were doing," McMillan said Monday on a video conference call from Orlando.

"I started to get a feel for how to use the two bigs and the rotations to split them. That takes time. We have that feel now after going through the first part of the season. We're much more comfortable with...the two of those guys out there playing together."

Splitting Sabonis and Turner means getting Sabonis out of the game early to allow Turner to play some at center instead of power forward offensively, and then bringing Sabonis back with the second unit where his passing and rebounding skills mesh with a smaller lineup.

The Pacers' best five-man group over the season's first 65 games, excluding those that weren't together for at least 50 minutes, was the one consisting of Sabonis with reserves Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell, and Doug McDermott. That group outscored opponents by 17.9 points per 100 possessions (measured that way to take out the influence of pace of play).

The intended starting lineup has worked well, too. After Oladipo joined the team at the end of January, he, Sabonis, Turner, T.J Warren, and Malcolm Brogdon outscored opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions. But Oladipo has opted out of the remainder of the season. And Brogdon tested positive for COVID-19, was quarantined before the Pacers left for Orlando and has not yet practiced there. That leaves Warren, whose 18.7-point average leads the Pacers' scoring, and the Sabonis-Turner duo as the most likely voices to be heard when the regular season resumes.

The Sabonis-Turner merger has been a work in progress since Sabonis became a Pacer before the 2017-18 season. It seemed natural for fans to want him to play major minutes alongside Turner once his skills became evident, but it has taken a long time for McMillan to have a substance-based argument for doing so.

Two seasons ago, their first together, the Pacers suffered in the 269 minutes Sabonis and Turner were on the court together, getting outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions.

Last season the two produced a 2.8-point scoring advantage per 100 possessions in 429 minutes together. Definite improvement.

This season, in 1,069 minutes together, they have produced a 2.1 scoring advantage per 100 possessions. That's a slight drop-off from last season, but it was improving rapidly. In the eight-wins-in-11 games stretch that closed the pre-lockdown phase of the season, they were +4.7. And in the final three games they were +11.2.

Turner has been the X-factor in the pairing's recent improvement. He struggled to be assertive early on, often finding himself standing on the perimeter while the offense ran through Sabonis near the free throw line. But as he adapted physically and psychologically to his former backup becoming a featured attraction (and an All-Star), the Pacers began to flourish.

The Pacers' most recent game was on March 10, when they lost to Boston at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 114-111, despite the absence of the injured Brogdon and McDermott. Sabonis led the Pacers with 28 points in that game, along with nine rebounds and eight assists. Turner finished with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, eight rebounds, and four blocked shots.

"I'm more comfortable in my role," Turner said in the postgame locker room. "I feel I'm going to get better. I've been watching a lot of film, watching a lot of guys in my position on other teams, and just going out there and doing it."

Turner has had plenty of time since then to review more video clips and consider his place in the Pacers' scheme of things. Based on the first three practice sessions in Orlando, he apparently has continued to adapt.

"I've even seen growth since we've been here in Orlando," McMillan said on Monday. "He just seems to have matured and he's gotten into a comfort zone with his game.

"He had to make the biggest adjustment of anyone starting the season, playing the five on the defensive end and the four on the offensive end of the floor, learning where his shots are coming from, learning to play off of guys. That was starting to come before we ended the season.

"The last three days he's been playing good basketball."

Turner said he has been pleased with the players' conditioning in the first three practices.

"Everybody is in really, really good shape," he said. "I was fairly impressed by the fact we haven't had a lot of injuries, we haven't had a lot of guys going down. We've been able to be very productive. I kind of expected there to be some little rough patches, but it's been real smooth."

Brogdon, who was quarantined after a positive test for the virus before the Pacers left for Orlando, has not participated. McMillan did not specify a reason but called it an "excused absence."

"We'll look to get a report on him when we get back to the hotel," McMillan said.

McMillan added the players are nowhere near the conditioning level required to play in a game but did not expect them to be.

"I'm impressed with what I've seen," he said.

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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.

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