With Myles Turner entering the league’s concussion protocol and Domantas Sabonis starting in his absence, the window of opportunity was theoretically cracked ever-so-slightly open for rookie Ike Anigbogu to see spot minutes at backup center against the Portland Trailblazers.
In practice, however, it might as well have been nailed shut.
Instead, despite the fact that Lance Stephenson and Al Jefferson logged zero minutes together last season after having posted the worst two-man net rating (minus-7.9) for the Charlotte Hornets (minimum 900 minutes played) two seasons prior, Nate McMillan (surprise, surprise) opted to lean on the anachronistic center’s more polished offensive repertoire and veteran experience.
Jefferson delivered in that regard, converting four of his six field goal attempts in 16 minutes of action.
But, it didn’t take long for Portland to target his plodding pick-and-roll coverage.
Here, on the 275-pound center’s first defensive possession, Jusuf Nurkic sets a high ball screen for Damian Lillard which forces Jefferson’s lumbering frame to leave the painted area in order to prevent the sweet-shooting ball-handler from pulling-up from three.
As expected, though, Jefferson isn’t quick enough to contain Lillard’s quick penetration, or react to this hesitation dribble which resulted in an easy lay-in.
On the night, Indiana surrendered a mammoth 145.7 points per 100 possessions when Jefferson was on the floor compared to 99.6 when he was on the bench.
Still, even if McMillan wanted to go with the more seasoned player, capable of getting buckets, in an effort to avoid disgruntlement when the game was within reach, why did he continue to do so when it wasn’t?
For instance, checkout the lopsided score along with the remaining time when Indiana’s head coach still had three starters plus Cory Joseph and T.J. Leaf on the floor.
Considering that the Pacers had given up 30-plus points in six of the seven quarters they’d played so far and only shot 4-of-22 from three, it wasn’t particularly likely that they would be able to narrow that 18-point deficit down to a manageable number.
As such, waving the white flag earlier was arguably to the benefit of the end-of-bench players as well as the starters. There’s no reason to continue to play Victor Oladipo, who keys the team’s pace, late in the fourth quarter on the front end of a back-to-back when the lead appears insurmountable.
With under four minutes remaining, Alex Poythress, Joe Young, and Damien Wilkins came in for Oladipo, Joseph, and Bogdanovic to join Leaf and Jefferson, who had already replaced Sabonis.
Yet, it wasn’t until there was less than 2:30 to play that Anigbogu finally substituted for Jefferson.
Granted, the second-round flyer is still fairly raw on offense and he’s managing a balky knee that already kept him out on the second night of a back-to-back against Maccabi Haifa during preseason, but McMillan confirmed that he was an available option against Portland and Kevin Pritchard was reluctant to categorize him as an expectant G League assignment player on media day.
“I want to see him out on the court,” Pritchard said of the player they drafted with the 47th overall pick. “I mean he's a defensive presence right now, today. That's what he'll bring. Whether he can pick up some concepts, whether he can get in great shape. He's been banged up and bruised a little bit.”
“But he should be fine.”
All of which begs the question that if last night — when the team’s starting five was ruled out and the mobility of the third-string center on defense also should have been — wasn’t the right time to experiment with Anigbogu’s athletic paint presence, when will it be?