Turner-Sabonis Pairing Showing Positive Results

April 2, 2019 - After practice on Tuesday, Myles Turner talked about playing alongside Domas Sabonis, and Pacers head coach Nate McMillan explained what he likes about the lineup.

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Turner-Sabonis Pairing Showing Positive Results

April 2, 2019 - After practice on Tuesday, Myles Turner talked about playing alongside Domas Sabonis, and Pacers head coach Nate McMillan explained what he likes about the lineup.
Apr 2, 2019  |  02:27

Turner-Sabonis Duo Starting to Click

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer

The Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis duo has been a primary Pacers' subplot since the middle of last season, when Sabonis' surprising contributions made playing the two centers together a legitimate topic of discussion. Actual production in their minutes together did not match the concept's intrigue, however.

That's changing as the Pacers enter the stretch run toward the playoffs. Coach Nate McMillan has been playing them together more often and likes the results, which finally pass both the eye and analytical tests.

"They've been able to make the adjustment as far as who's defending who out there," McMillan said following Tuesday's practice at St. Vincent Center. "I think it also poses a challenge for the defense to sign off on who to put their bigs on. It's worked out for us."

Turner doesn't bother with the analytics. He just knows what he likes.

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"I'm not sure what the numbers say," he said. "I'm sure statistically it's not our best lineup, but I love playing with Domas. I think it's always been good."

Not always, just lately.

The most valid measurement of the Turner-Sabonis pairing is through net ratings, which are available for every possible lineup combination. The ratings are based on points scored and points allowed when combinations are on the court together but extrapolated over 100 possessions, which removes pace of play from the equation.

Turner and Sabonis played together for 269 minutes last season. Their offensive rating was 93.2 and their defensive rating 103, which means the Pacers were outscored by an average 9.9 points per 100 possessions when they played together. It was much worse than that after the All-Star break, with an impact of -26.7 per 100 possessions. Small wonder, then, McMillan hesitated to go back to it early this season.

He's doing so with increasing frequency, though. Turner and Sabonis have played together for 417 minutes with four regular season games to go. During those minutes, the Pacers have averaged 100.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 96.6 for a +3.5 net result. The tandem has been even more productive since the All-Star break, with a rating of 113 on offense and 106.2 on defense. The drop-off on defense partially reflects the difficult March schedule, loaded with road games against playoff teams.

The key to the combo's recent success has been Turner's improvement as a rebounder, shot blocker and defender of pick-and-rolls, along with the familiarity they've acquired while playing together. Defending on the perimeter will always be a concern when both are in the game, but one that can be neutralized by the positives they bring.

Monday's game with Detroit serves as a reasonable microcosm of the impact of the Turner-Sabonis pairing, an indication that while it doesn't always work out well it often does. Sabonis first entered the game with 4:52 remaining in the first quarter and played with Turner the remainder of the period. The Pacers, though, went from six points down to 10 behind during that stretch.

Myles Turner and Domas Sabonis

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

The same substitution was made with 4:32 left in the third period. By the end of it, the Pacers' lead had jumped from two to seven points and Turner and Sabonis both had something to do with it, as the running account reveals:

3:11: Turner rebounded a Pistons miss

2:59: Sabonis hit a jump-hook.

2:27: Turner grabbed another defensive rebound, which led to Sabonis throwing a bounce pass in transition to Bojan Bogdanovic for a layup.

1:31: Turner scored on a driving hook shot in the lane.

1:10: Sabonis grabbed a defensive rebound.

52.2: Turner hit a 3-pointer in transition.

30.8: Sabonis grabbed another rebound.

0.5: Turner picked off a steal, was fouled, and hit two free throws.

There's an added element of the Pacers' frontline to consider as well: team captain Thad Young.

McMillan regards Turner, Sabonis and Young as his "big man" rotation, a trio that can be used in any combination of twos and can provide a variety of contributions. Turner appears destined to lead the NBA in blocked shots this season with a 2.73 average, comfortably ahead of second-place Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (2.46). He's also hitting 38 percent of his 3-pointers. Sabonis is the team's best rebounder and is shooting 59 percent from the field and, in 16 attempts, 56 percent from the 3-point line. Young is the most versatile Pacer, averaging 12.5 points on 52 percent shooting along with 6.5 rebounds, and is a chameleon defender who can guard at least three positions.

Against Detroit on Monday, they collaborated on 54 points, 27 rebounds and five blocked shots (all by Turner) in 92 minutes. Pistons center Andre Drummond had a typically productive game with 18 points and 17 rebounds, but their bigs rotation that included Thon Maker and Zaza Pachulia combined for 32 points, 24 rebounds and four blocks.

It's hardly an automatic advantage for the Pacers, as was proven in Saturday's loss to Orlando. Turner, Sabonis and Young combined for 36 points, 23 rebounds and two blocks in that game, while the Magic trio of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Khem Birch accounted for 52 points, 16 rebounds and one block.

Still, it seems to provide an advantage more often than not. Two nights earlier, in Boston, the Pacers' trio combined for 44 points, 28 rebounds and two blocks, while the Celtics' combination of Aron Baynes, Al Horford and Marcus Morris accounted for 39 points, 23 rebounds and five blocks.

"I'm comfortable with any of the combinations of bigs we have our there," McMillan said. "They've all played well together. We can match up with big teams or small teams with our versatility."

Which poses another question. Why not play Turner, Young and Sabonis together? That combination has its potential drawbacks, such as removing Bojan Bogdanovic from the lineup or playing him out of position at shooting guard, as well as poor perimeter defense. McMillan, however, hasn't ruled out trying it – not for the long haul, but in specific situations.

"We've talked about that," he said. "We've actually talked about that as a lineup at the end of games. Putting it out there to defend a last possession. We've lost games because of switching and not rebounding. You put a big lineup out there, you can switch everything."

Young would be fine with it, believing he can play the "three" position in certain matchups, but hasn't brought it up to the coaches. His norm is to play wherever he's asked to play, or even to voluntarily not play at all if the lineup in the game is clicking. At various points this season he has encouraged McMillan to leave Sabonis or TJ Leaf in the game when they were playing well, rather than reinsert him back into the lineup at the usual time.

Given that, he's all for Sabonis and Turner spending more quality time together in games.

"Overall that's one of the ultimate goals, to be able to get those guys to play together and get me a little rest sometimes," he said. "I don't look at it as being at my expense. I'm going to do my best whether I'm playing 15 minutes or 30 minutes. I want minutes, too, but sometimes you have to step aside and let the younger guys get a feel, or let them bring us home sometimes.

"I told Coach, the only thing I care about is winning. If I have to sit down in order for us to win, hey, let's do 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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