He was trying, seriously trying, but Myles Turner couldn't quite contain his emotions. The wadded towel he held in front of his mouth served as a prop to muffle the words he surely wanted to speak, but his facial expression and body language spoke for him.
He wasn't happy. The smile? It wasn't the kind that reflects pleasure, but serves as a polite mask for surprise and disappointment.
The clock was winding down on the Pacers-Celtics matchup on Saturday, the Pacers desperately trying to pull out their toughest challenge of the season's first 10 games. Turner had re-entered the game for Domantas Sabonis at the 4:27 mark, seemingly for the duration, but after just 77 ticks of the game clock, with 3:10 left, he was pulled back to the bench in favor of Sabonis at a dead ball.
Turner's facial expression betrayed his feelings as he walked to the bench, enough so that sideline reporter Pat Boylan mentioned it on the radio broadcast. He sat down, held that towel in front of his mouth with both hands clenched in front of his face, forced that slight smile and rocked back and forth a while to compose himself.
Asked afterward if he had been surprised to be pulled, Turner hesitated.
"Hmmmmm," he said, then paused a few more seconds.
A nearly infinite number of ingredients go into the stew of a winning basketball team, a bona-fide team with intangibles that supplement its box scores on nights when shots aren't dropping. Turner's reaction on Saturday – actually, his reaction to his reaction – was one that makes the Pacers what they are in the moment, a team with a unique culture that's been building and brewing since the roster was reorganized heading into last season.
Victor Oladipo's clutch shooting was the story of last week, when they won three games in four nights, two on the road and then the adrenaline-infused 102-101 victory over Boston on Saturday. But Turner's professional comportment was a subplot, missed by most observers but meaningful just the same.
He could have pouted on the bench, could have sat there sullenly while Oladipo was saving the day in front of him, could have escaped from the locker room afterward without a word to anyone.
He didn't do any of that, but could have been forgiven if he had.
He's the Pacers' starting center. He has a generous four-year contract extension sitting in his back pocket, ready to kick in next season. He's coming off a dedicated summer that brought noticeable improvements to his game. He's followed McMillan's directive to focus on defense and rebounding more than scoring. He had played superbly in Chicago the previous night, when he scored 18 points on 70 percent shooting and matched his career-high with six blocked shots, including one that snuffed out Chicago's desperate hope to win the game at the final buzzer.
Photo: NBAE/Getty Images
One might think all of that would have been enough to be granted the privilege of finishing the game against the Celtics, but it wasn't. One of McMillan's coaching strengths is that he's willing to bruise egos and finish games with whomever he believes brings the best chance to win. Rarely do all five starters finish what they started. Oladipo is the only constant.
Wednesday in New York, Darren Collison was on the bench for most of the closing run, although he replaced Thaddeus Young with 6.7 seconds left. Friday in Chicago, Young was on the bench and Collison hit the game-winning shot with 18.5 seconds left. Saturday, Turner was on the bench down the stretch, although Cory Joseph replaced Collison with 29.2 seconds left.
"Coaching in the flow of the game, listening to my assistants," McMillan said. "We're talking about combinations that are working and what players have somewhat of a rhythm and you make substitutions accordingly. Sometimes that works for you and sometimes it doesn't."
Although Turner generally played well against the Celtics, finishing with 12 points off just seven field goal attempts and six rebounds in his 28 minutes, he did contribute to his own demise.
Upon re-entering the game with 4:27 left, he was called for a double dribble while driving to the basket. He then got stuck in no-man's land while defending a pick-and-roll that resulted in Al Horford's driving dunk for the Celtics, and then was called for a moving pick while screening for Oladipo on the perimeter. He missed a 21-foot shot on the Pacers' next possession, but by then Sabonis already was waiting at the scorer's table to check in.
It's what happened from that point forward that spoke loudest on Turner's behalf. Once he had processed the unexpected call to the bench, he gradually worked his way into cheerleader mode. Watch the televised replay, and you can see the transformation in the background.
Six seconds after Turner had been subbed out, Oladipo hit a 3-pointer. Turner, still clutching the towel in front of his face, clapped quietly a few times then sat back in his chair.
As Oladipo fired a 3-pointer on the Pacers' next possession, Turner – holding the towel in his right hand now - stood up in anticipation of another big shot, showed his disappointment over the miss, and sat down again.
When Bogdanovic hit a 3-pointer on the next possession, right in front of the Pacers bench, Turner stood and thrust his arms into the air. By then the towel had been discarded.
By the time Oladipo took a step-back jumper with a foot on the 3-point line with 52.1 seconds left, Turner was standing on the end of the court with a few of his teammates. He put his hands on TJ Leaf's shoulder as the shot went up, dropped his head as he watched it approach the rim as if urging it to go in, and sighed with relief when it did.
When Oladipo hit two foul shots with 29.2 seconds left, Turner, standing along with the rest of his teammates, clapped.
When Oladipo went up for the game-winner with 3.4 ticks left, Turner was standing in the background, bending over at the waist with his arms spread wide. After the ball dropped through the net, he turned to his right, walked a few steps and grabbed a young boy who appeared to be a random fan, and lifted him into the air.
And, finally, when Oladipo deflected Gordon Hayward's inbound pass on the game's final possession, took Young's pass and threw the ball into the air, it was Turner who met Oladipo at the foul line in front of the Pacers' bench with a perfectly-timed leaping chest bump.
It had been a brisk and dramatic emotional conversion, from disappointment to exultation to objective examination.
"It's part of the game," he said back in the locker room. "Coach goes with what he feels is working. It's not my job to sit back and ***** and complain.
"Just because I get subbed out, I'm not going to hope for guys not to do well. That's not the way I'm built and that's not the way this team is built."
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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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