It's been a long time coming for Ian Mahinmi and Monta Ellis. Eight years for Mahinmi and 10 for Ellis, in fact, to get with a team that values their assets and surrounds them with players who try to bring out their best.
The payoff for their patience – as if they had a choice – was obvious in the 96-83 victory over Miami at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday, when the Pacers proved they can beat a good team while shooting poorly from the 3-point line.
Mahinmi, a regular starter for the first time in his ninth NBA season, had what probably stands as the best game of his career. He scored 18 points while hitting 7-of-9 shots from the field and all four free throws, and grabbed 12 rebounds in 35 minutes, 58 seconds. The playing time was a career high, the point total was one short of his career high and the rebounds were two shy of his career high.
He's now averaging a career-high 8.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, well above his previous career highs of 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds with Dallas in 2011-12. It's amounting to a rare breakout season for a ninth-year NBA veteran, although he sat out one season with San Antonio in 2008-09.
"It feels I've been chasing that my whole career," Mahinmi said. "To finally get to this point feels good. I feel I've paid my dues. I finally found a place where I'm happy and my teammates are pulling for me. Just a good feeling."
The Pacers didn't change their offense to an uptempo small ball approach for the benefit of Mahinmi, but he's flourished in it as much as anyone. He doesn't care how often he shoots – his nine attempts on Friday were two short of his career high – and he has the quickness and agility to execute pick-and-rolls and defend on the perimeter.
He scored three of his field goals on assists from Ellis, one on a lob pass for a layup and two on dunks off pick-and-rolls. He also got out on the perimeter to defend a missed 3-pointer from Chris Bosh with 2 1/2 minutes left. Those simply are plays Mahinmi's predecessor, two-time All-Star Roy Hibbert, wouldn't have been physically capable of making.
"As much as the small ball works for us guards, it works for him," Paul George said of Mahinmi. "He's the one guy down there occupying the paint (in the smaller lineup). He doesn't get enough credit for how athletic he is at the center position – how mobile he is, how quick he is. He's been exploiting matchups."
"He's an exceptional defender," added coach Frank Vogel. "He's not ordinary, he's not good, he's exceptional. Just his versatility. He's one of the best leverage post defenders in the game. He's got a great low base, a wide base and can hold guys off, but also has great speed to get back out and guard these guys with five 3-point shooters out there."
Perhaps Mahinmi's most significant asset for this team, however, is his unselfishness. While Hibbert sometimes chafed at how few shots he was getting, Mahinmi simply doesn't care. He proved that in the final minute of Friday's game when he passed up a shot that would have given him a career-high 20 points to assist on a layup for Rodney Stuckey.
"I seriously don't look at the stats," he said. "I just wanted to make the right play. I'm not really chasing any stats."
He has been chasing free throws, but that pursuit appears to be over. After hitting just 21 percent of his foul shots in his first 13 games, he's hit 72 percent in the seven since then. He hit all four in the first quarter on Friday, perhaps signaling an to the hack-a-Ian strategy teams had been employing.
"Free throws are just free throws," he said. "I told you before the season started I can shoot free throws. You just have to get over the mental part and shoot your free throws. Just shoot and don't think too much about it."
Ellis has been erratic, not providing the scoring expected of him. A career 19.3-point scorer, and coming off an 18.9 average in Dallas last season, he was averaging just 11.6 points on 41 percent shooting before Friday, and had scored 20 or more just three times. That's why his 24-point outing on 10-of-18 shooting against the Heat brought some relief and hope to the Pacers. He hit 4-of-7 3-pointers, but that's likely an outlier for a 25 percent career shooter from behind the arc.
The Pacers will settle for steadier production, not to mention his all-around game. He had six assists – three to Mahinmi – and six steals, padding his team lead in both categories.
"When he's assertive and looking to get his shots, you can see it from the start of the game," George said. "Tonight he was aggressive getting his shot. A lot of times he passes up threes and I'm like, 'Monta, you've got to shoot those. It's a wide-open shot in our offense.'"
For Ellis to step up, though, George had to step back. Which he did, voluntarily.
George has been on a scoring tear recently, peaking with his 48-point effort at Utah last Saturday. He followed that with 33 against Golden State on Tuesday, but hit just 11-of-27 shots and disrupted the offense at times.
"I came out more on the passive side; tried to get the ball flowing a little better," said George, who settled for 17 shots against Miami, hitting seven. "A lot of guys were attacking, a lot of guys were aggressive.
"I'm going to continue to grow in this game and with this team. Tonight was a night I felt everybody was going to have to (contribute)."
If Ellis' scoring hasn't lived up to expectations, his defense has surpassed them. He gave the impression of not believing it mattered much in his preseason comments, and certainly hasn't been known for it throughout his career. He often ranked in the top five in steals, but was regarded as a gambling defender more than a fundamental one.
He's been more than solid with the Pacers. He said earlier this season it's the first time he's played on a team where everyone wants to win, and appears to have been influenced by the team-first approach.
"I'm just on a team where everybody's playing defense," he said. "Usually there's a breakdown and there's always a (scapegoat) and I was that guy. Here we have so many guys who play defense there's no holes in it."
Ellis, whose six steals were a season high and one short of his career high, viewed his defense the same as Manhimi viewed his offense on Friday: Just a matter of playing within the system and being in the right place at the right time.
"I was just in the right spots; we were in our gaps," Ellis said.
For Mahinmi and Ellis, being in the right spot refers to more than just one game. It's a long-awaited marker for their careers.
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