Video Doesn't Lie, Pacers Take Responsibility

It would have been easy, maybe forgivable, to chalk up the previous night's loss to faulty officiating and move on. Justified or not, the box score provided ample evidence of that, what with those 42 foul shots Charlotte attempted and the mere seven the Pacers got, not to mention the controversial call in overtime that allowed the Hornets to win the game at the foul line.

Nate McMillan, however, didn't take the bait in the video review before the Pacers met Washington Wednesday. There were some questionable calls, certainly, but they were a mere subplot to the overriding theme: The Pacers did foul too often, and they didn't play the kind of offense that tends to draw fouls.

"(The coaches) didn't let last night slide under the rug," Doug McDermott said. "We had a really good team meeting before the shootaround and they got after us. Kind of motivated us to go out there and play hard."

The chastened, excuse-free Pacers put together a far more complete and cohesive effort in their 121-106 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They collected 35 assists, a season high. They got to the foul line for 26 attempts, one short of their season high, and limited the Wizards to 19. They attempted 30 3-pointers, matching their season high.

They also got a season-high 43 points from the bench and had seven players score between 12 and 21 points. Not the least of those was Domantas Sabonis, who returned after a two-game absence due to a left calf contusion to make all the difference in the world for a team in desperate need of the things he does.

Sabonis finished with 13 points, matched the career-high 17 rebounds he accumulated in his previous appearance, against Cleveland, and passed out seven assists. If he hadn't fouled out after just 28 minutes of action, he might have had his first career triple-double.

"It was great to hear he was coming back tonight," McMillan said. "He does so much for us at both ends of the floor."

Sabonis might have been able to play the previous night in Charlotte, but it was determined he wasn't ready to play in a back-to-back set. Given one more day of recovery, he got through this one without incident except for all the damage he did to the Wizards.

"The smart move was to play today," he said.

The smarter move was for everyone to play the way McMillan expects them to play: by moving the ball and not forcing shots or settling for floaters when an aggressive drive to the rim is the better choice, and by keeping their hands up on defense and avoiding reaching fouls.

The benefits of that approach were profound, and in some areas surprising. T.J. Warren, who had scored 33 points on Tuesday and 26 on Sunday, had another strong offensive game with 21 on 9-of-15 shooting. Malcolm Brogdon produced his fifth double-double of the season with 12 points (on 3-of-14 shooting), 13 rebounds, and two turnovers. McDermott established season highs with 19 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. Goga Bitadze, once again playing off the bench as intended, had 13 points.

Less expected were the contributions of Aaron Holiday, who scored 18 points — one short of his career-high — in his first start of the season, and JaKarr Sampson, who scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds, both season highs, in his third consecutive start.

That was more than enough to render the officiating a moot point and to qualify this one as one of those a "total team effort" victories.

"Everybody's just playing their game," Sabonis smiled through his facial scars afterward. "It's fun out there."

Sabonis makes it fun by doing the dirty work. He set up an easy 3-pointer for McDermott in transition in the second quarter with a rebound and quick outlet to Brogdon, who fed McDermott for a shot from the left wing that accounted for three of McDermott's 15 points in the period.

The Pacers missed 11 of their final 12 shots in the third period to let the Wizards back in the game, but Sabonis helped recover the momentum early in the fourth. He rebounded Brogdon's missed jumper and fired a quick outlet to Holiday, who hit a 3-pointer. Next time down, he rebounded Sampson's 3-pointer and tipped out the rebound to Holiday for another 3-pointer that opened a 17-point lead that forced a Wizards timeout.

Aaron Holiday

Photo Credit: Matt Kryger

With Jeremy Lamb out with a sprained left ankle suffered in the second quarter of Tuesday's game, McMillan started Aaron Holiday. He could have gone with older brother Justin but wanted to add more ballhandling to the backcourt to take some of the pressure off Brogdon, who had five turnovers in each of the previous three games. Aaron Holiday's scoring was a bonus, and his turnover-free 31 minutes of play were a welcome surprise.

Holiday was quick out of the locker room, escaping before most reporters could get to him, but McMillan spoke on his behalf.

"We don't give out game balls...but if we (did) I would give it to Aaron," McMillan said. "He was solid at both ends of the floor. He didn't force anything. He allowed the game to come to him offensively and stayed solid defensively."

Sampson was equally impactful at both ends. The last player signed to an NBA contract in the offseason and presumed to be one of last to get into games during the season, Sampson further established himself as a dependable option.

He sent a jolt through The Fieldhouse with a stretch of play in the third period that was the primary factor in the Pacers' lead jumping from 10 to 23. It started with his layup in transition off a nifty spin move untypical of an undrafted 6-foot-9 forward. He soon added three more layups within an 88-second span, two of them off assists from Sabonis. Forty seconds later, he added a 15-foot jump shot for a 90-67 lead midway through the quarter.

Sampson spent most of last season in China and with the Windy City Bulls of the G League but was called up for the final four regular season games with Chicago. He averaged 20 points and eight rebounds in those games, enough to entice Pacers management in the offseason. Lately he has enticed McMillan as well, especially when he utters words that are music to any coach's ears.

"(Scoring is) something I've been working on a lot offseason, but when I come in the game first and foremost my mindset is defense," he said. "You have a lot of people on this team who can put the ball in the hole, you know, so my mindset is defense. It just happened my offense got going today."

Like with that spin move?

"Yeah, but my love and passion is on the defensive end," hesaid. "That's where I get my thrill. I'd rather do that any day than make a three or make a layup."

That kind of mindset will be required for the Pacers (4-4) to maintain a run toward the playoffs while waiting on their injured players to return. Myles Turner (sprained ankle) should be back soon, perhaps as early as Friday's game against Detroit. Edmond Sumner (fractured hand) will need more time, though, and Victor Oladipo (right knee) remains out indefinitely.

The adjustment process will be ongoing for a while. McMillan started his fifth different starting lineup on Wednesday, and 10 of his players have now started at least once.

"You just have to take it day by day," McDermott said. "It's been a learning curve all year. We just have a lot of unselfish guys and that makes everything easy. No one's really looking to get theirs, it's more for the team. That starts with coach Nate and trickles its way down."

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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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