It’s getting to be an old story already, but not one the Pacers are tired of telling. Nor one their fans are tired of hearing.
Domantas Sabonis can play. He keeps proving that over and over again, in new ways and bigger ways, as the Pacers’ season picks up speed. They’re a no-big-deal 4-3 after Tuesday’s 101-83 victory over 1-6 Sacramento at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but the combination of their energy and togetherness has reignited hope for better days in the wake of last season’s frustrating season.
Nobody personifies the reasons for optimism more than Sabonis, whom many considered a mere bauble in the trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City over the summer. Victor Oladipo was the proven asset coming to the Pacers in that deal. Sabonis was just a rookie who had averaged 5.9 points and had scored just four points while playing just six minutes in two games in the postseason.
But gather around and listen to this story (again). Sabonis was more impressive than ever against the Kings, showing off more nuances to a game that looks more complete with each outing. This time his stat line included 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting, a career-high 16 rebounds and a career-high-matching five assists. All in 25:07, which is all that was needed from him in a game the Pacers dominated from the outset.
It was his fifth consecutive game with double-figure rebounds and fourth double-double of that stretch. He would have set a career-high for assists, too, if Thaddeus Young had not missed a layup after taking Sabonis’ quick touch pass from the foul line. Young can be forgiven, though, because he’s not accustomed to playing with a passing big man of that caliber, or in an offense in which the biggest fault might be excessive ball movement.
“A little bit,” Young smiled when asked if he had been taken by surprise on the play. “He’ll have a chance to get (the personal best), though. It’s a long season.”
That’s the intriguing thing for the Pacers. It’s a long season, and the 21-year-old Sabonis is only going to get better. He set a career-high for scoring (22 points on 9-of-9 shooting) in Sunday’s win over San Antonio, hitting all nine shots, and matched his career high with 12 rebounds. He obliterated his rebounding record — again, in 25 minutes — on Tuesday, grabbing nine in the game’s first 7 1/2 minutes. And while he dared to actually miss a field goal attempt, an open 12-footer midway through the opening quarter, he still raised his season’s field goal percentage to .679.
Seven games in, the Oklahoma City afterthought…the player who would not be in the starting lineup if Myles Turner had not suffered a concussion in the opening-night victory over Brooklyn…is practically the axle on which the Pacers’ halfcourt offense turns. He sets rock-solid screens for guards on the perimeter, he makes simple passes to reverse or hand off the ball, he makes “can’t-teach-that” bounce passes off the dribble to teammates cutting backdoor, he provides their best post-up threat by muscling his way around the basket and hitting jump hooks and he steps out to hit midrange shots. 3-pointers aren’t out of the question, either.
There’s nothing left for a big man to do. But it’s nothing new for him.
“Growing up, I’ve been used in that situation,” he said. “I’m just glad I can use it here on this team.”
Sabonis’ passing was the latest revelation put on display Tuesday, a skill by which he comes naturally. His father, Arvydas, is regarded as one of the best passing big men of all time, as exhibited here from his past-his-prime playing days with Portland.
“Inherit, watch film, talk to him,” Sabonis shrugged when asked how he has acquired those skills.
Pacers coach Nate McMillan considers Sabonis the master of the d.h.o. — dribble-handoff action on the perimeter, in which he makes split-second decisions that enable a random offense that gives freedom to the players and headaches to opposing scouts. McMillan set a goal for his team of at least 25 assists per game, and it matched that exactly on Tuesday.
Sabonis, playing center during Turner’s absence and destined for time at power forward after Turner returns, might be the player most able to make that happen.
“He’s a very intelligent player,” McMillan said. “Smart, plays within himself. We really wanted to run our offense through him, where he’s involved in the pick-and-roll, handling the ball, reversing the ball at the top.
“He makes his teammates better out there.”
Those teammates include Oladipo, who says he’s not all that surprised by what Sabonis is doing. Oladipo, who entered the game averaging 25.5 points, scored a season-low 14 against the Kings but seemed not to care in the least. He was in a joking mood afterward while head athletic trainer Josh Corbeil taped ice bags to his knees and ankles, and then transitioned to a contemplative mood with reporters.
How have the Pacers gelled so quickly, with so many new players?
“Everybody knows their roles, everybody has accepted their roles,” Oladipo said. “We’ve got some good people in this locker room. Good vets and great young guys who are willing to get to know each other and are willing to have each other’s backs. You really can’t teach that.”
The gelling process began in August, when most of the players came back early to begin playing with one another and become better acquainted. Wait…can’t say “came back” when most of them didn’t live in Indianapolis last season. Sabonis, Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic (who led Tuesday’s scoring with 17 points), Darren Collison (who appeared to tweak his knee on a fastbreak layup that he missed), Cory Joseph, T.J. Leaf, Damien Wilkins, Ike Anigbogu, and Alex Poythress all were new to town. Lance Stephenson almost was, having joined the Pacers for their final six regular season games and first-round playoff series last season.
Their early start has paid off lately.
“We’ve been playing together since August and trying to get a feel for each other,” Young said. “We all talked to each other about coming a little earlier, so we could get acclimated with the system and the new guys. We’ve been doing a good job of just going out and playing and trusting the system, trusting the coaches.
“We have a lot of guys who are very talented on this team and can do a lot of different things, not just Sabonis, but Vic, DC, Cory, Lance, even Joe (Young)…we’re utilizing every asset to our advantage.”
It’s clear by now, they have more assets than people thought, coming into a season for which the consensus projection seemed to be 30-35 wins — most notably the biggest surprise of all, Sabonis. Suddenly, a winning season and playoff berth don’t seem far-fetched.
“When you play the game together, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to win,” McMillan said.
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