Domantas Sabonis should’ve been on the floor at the end of Game 4. Myles Turner shot 7-of-8 from the field through three quarters, but he tallied just one additional shot after he subbed in for his understudy with 4:47 to play and the Pacers only managed to muster three points before the start of the game’s final 17 seconds.
Part of this was a product of Victor Oladipo struggling to pick his spots when the Cavaliers purposefully began alternating coverages against him down the stretch, but it also was a microcosm of what was missing when the son of Ardyvas Sabonis wasn’t on hand to grease the mechanical workings of the offense whenever its gears got gummed up by hard doubles.
On the series, the Pacers scored 12.8 points per 100 possessions more when Oladipo was on the floor with Sabonis in the absence of Turner than vice versa.
How did Domantas Sabonis impress?
None of this is an indictment of Turner’s potential ceiling as much as it should highlight the safety net provided by the instincts of Sabonis to make the next play.
For instance, he displayed a knack for slipping into space against the Cavaliers, and he was more apt to attack than react in 4-on-3 situations when Oladipo made the initial pass to the middle of the floor out of the trap.
Here, by immediately backing down Darren Collison’s man and appearing prepared to turn over his (gasp) left shoulder, Sabonis forced LeBron James to commit to him in the paint, which left Bojan Bogdanovic open in the weak side corner.
Because Indiana’s backup center kept his dribble alive and pivoted to his strong hand, Thaddeus Young ended up getting an easy basket by cutting behind the action when Kevin Love drifted to the baseline to cover Bogdanovic.
Beyond these types of quick decisions, he also spent the regular season developing a special chemistry with Oladipo when it came to executing dribble hand-off sets.
So much so that when defenders attempted to duck under to try to keep the late-bloomer out of the paint, Sabonis would still manage to find the right angle on the screen so that Oladipo would have enough space to drain the pull-up jump shot.
Or, better yet, when opponents tried to overplay it with Indiana’s high-octane guard standing in the left corner, the makeshift power fauxward-turned-center would come ready and willing to thread backdoor passes to Oladipo cutting to the rim.
The ultimate example of his passing acumen, however, was from the second game of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers, when Sabonis faked the hand-off to Indiana’s leading scorer and patiently waited for the exact moment to find the Croatian sharpshooter in the eye of the storm for the reverse layup.
The Lithuanian big man could certainly stand to cut back on his turnovers out of the pick-and-roll, but his read of the floor revealed in him the ability to connect dots that sometimes would’ve otherwise been random.
He just gets it.
How did Domantas Sabonis disappoint?
Among players with a minimum of 100 pick-and-pop possessions, Sabonis scored the fewest points per possession (0.687). So, he obviously needs to become more comfortable with his jumper while slowly getting better acquainted with the three-point line.
However, given that he rolled to the basket on 57.7 percent of his possessions as the screen setter and basically showed himself to be allergic to turning over his left shoulder whether flashing middle or posting up on either block, becoming more ambidextrous should arguably be a higher priority.
In Game 7, for example, LeBron was able to strip the ball from the 22-year-old off the switch because he anticipated that Sabonis would turn middle to get back to his left hand.
If it somehow wasn’t already, Sabonis should expect that this particular bullet point will be in bold print on scouting reports next season.
What’s next for Domantas Sabonis?
If he continues to blossom, the Pacers are going to have to figure out how to best accommodate two talented bigs under the age of 23.
“Someday, he’s a starter quality,” Pritchard told Pacers.com’s Mark Monteith. “You have to figure out how to get him on the floor for 30 minutes; he’s just too good.”
Overall, the Pacers got outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions in the 268 minutes that the twin towers were on the floor together this season, a mark which should cast at least moderate doubt as to whether the offense of the Turner-Sabonis lineups would be able to outpace their cumbersome closeouts over a larger sample size.
Consider this: When the pair of 22-year-old bigs were on the floor together, opponents launched 34.6 threes per 100 possessions and they shot only a shade below 40 percent on those attempts.
Using Turner as a floor spacer while having Sabonis act as a release valve for spot minutes in the playoffs was a step in the right direction from devolving into post-ups for the latter with the former standing obstructively in the paint, but regularly incorporating more dynamic actions — like, say, anything resembling a horns set — would’ve yielded better feedback during beta testing.
Sabonis can trace the line between points, but McMillan is going to have to do more to number them when both centers play in tandem.