Falling somewhere between poor execution and growing pains, the Indiana Pacers and their inability to secure momentum left the door open for the Detroit Pistons to spoil their home opener. It was the first opening game loss for the Pacers since 2015, though short of last year’s dominating win against Memphis, Indiana had to earn those previous opening night wins. They failed to do so tonight.
From the outset, the Pacers played as if they were under construction, going scoreless for the first four minutes and taking over 23 minutes before finally breaking through into the lead. Momentum was a wildly difficult thing for the Pacers to capture with the Pistons playing one step ahead of Indiana in the first half. Whenever they did appear to shift the tide early after a pair of quick steals and buckets from Edmond Sumner, the Pistons would be right there to ensure the lead didn’t change hands, creating a frustrating pairing of solid offensive possessions with frustrating defensive lapses.
Detroit managed to hold their lead until the final minute of the second quarter in large part to a 15-point half from Derrick Rose. Rose was in vintage form with his floater, taking the Indiana defense to task. With Rose stepping up big off the bench, the Pacers didn’t quite have a counter as Nate McMillan played 11 players in the first half, searching for a combination that might unlock some kind of momentum shift.
Something was found late in the half when McMillan turned to T.J. McConnell after a calamitous run by Aaron Holiday (zero points on 0-6 shooting in seven minutes). McConnell brought some much needed stability to the Indiana offense, guiding them into the lead on a 13-6 run, finishing up 55-54 heading into the break.
Malcolm Brogdon opened up the third quarter with a three pointer to push the Pacers lead to four, but instead of capitalizing on it, Detroit pushed their way back into the lead on a 10-2 run. Andre Drummond had six points and three rebounds in those two minutes, doing a rare job of not only piling up numbers against the Pacers, but actually making a crucial impact on the game.
The Pacers meanwhile began finding success on the offensive end with the Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis pairing, regaining the lead on a 13-0 run, the pair scoring 10 of the 13 to help put the Pacers up nine. It was a rare case of gaining momentum through fouls, as the Pacers marched to the line at will in the third quarter to help build their lead, helped thoroughly by Brogdon’s excellent free throw shooting.
Even still, the Pacers continued to struggle getting crucial stops, and before they knew it, Detroit had cut the lead down to just three heading into the fourth thanks to the shooting of Luke Kennard, but also through late shot clock possessions that continuously seemed to favor success for the Pistons.
That combination returned the game flow to its earlier back-and-forth nature of the first half, with the Pacers keeping hold of the lead with timely buckets against a surging Pistons offense. Kennard and Drummond scored the first 12 of the fourth quarter for Detroit, putting them into the lead with just under eight minutes remaining. Indiana regained the advantage thanks to a pair of and-ones from Sabonis and Jeremy Lamb, leading 101-97 halfway through the quarter.
Drummond and Kennard again responded for Detroit, scoring eight straight including two second chance opportunities for the Pistons and two Kennard threes. Down two with just under four to go, T.J. Warren was upended on a drive, crashing hard to the floor and needed help to the locker room. After the game, a negative MRI return was great news in a scary situation, with Warren not expecting to miss any time at the moment.
On the floor, the play was ruled a charge, turning possession over to the Pistons, eventually setting up a Tony Snell three before Kennard and Drummond again outworked the Pacers down the stretch to help put Detroit on top 119-110. Both players had career (or at least near-career) games with Kennard finishing with a career high 30 off the bench and Drummond overpowering the Pacers with 32 points and 23 rebounds.
Those performances allowed the Pistons to stamp an exclamation point on the victory, but the Indiana offense really struggled down the stretch to find consistent scoring, which may or may not be a surprise, especially short perhaps their best overall scorer in Warren. The Pacers did get a trio of big games themselves from Turner, Sabonis, and Brodgon, but didn’t have quite the composure to allow 110 points to be enough for the victory.
Though inflated late, Detroit still shot 33 free throws on the night. Drummond himself was 8-10, but the overall performance at the line for the Pistons was an example of Indiana’s inability to ever lock in defensively without committing some sort of foul. They still managed to force the Pistons into 18 turnovers, but mustered just eight fast break points on nine steals, a dagger of a statistic to Pacers teams of the last two years.
Also, for as good as both Sumner and McConnell were in the first half, both slipped well into the background for the second half, with Sumner finishing a game worst -23 in plus/minus, often responsible for the breakdowns defensively that allowed Kennard to shoot 6-9 from three point range. In addition to Aaron Holiday’s struggles, Justin Holiday himself didn’t fair any better, going scoreless in his 15 minutes. T.J. Leaf was an afterthought, logging just three minutes as McMillan searched for answers.
The biggest positives of the night came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Indiana’s twin towers in Turner and Sabonis. Both players absolutely excelled in the areas you’d expect them to, with Sabonis leading the way with 27 points on 11-15 shooting with 13 rebounds. He not only showcased his tremendous post abilities, but pulled in five offensive rebounds in the process.
Turner meanwhile scored 25 with nine rebounds and three blocks. He shot 9-15 from the floor, including 4-7 from three point range showing absolutely no hesitation in his release and making the most of it. There was also a Harden-esque stepback three late in the first half that is hard not to be excited about.
Turner and Sabonis combined for 22 rebounds, which on the surface is great, but becomes its own problem with the Pacers as a team pulled in just 36 total, including just six rebounds total from the bench. This led to a 45-36 rebounding deficit for the game, which weren’t helped much by Detroit shooting over 50% for the game.
Brogdon himself had a double double of 22 points and 11 assists, but struggled at times with ball handling and shooting, going just 5-13. Beyond that, there was very little in the way of support for the play of Turner and Sabonis. Lamb and Warren finished with 10 points each, but neither had a real grasp on the game, with Lamb nursing an apparent hip injury early in the game and Warren of course leaving with one late.
Afterwards, the common theme in the locker room was that of figuring out how to get a better feel of how to play with each other, which is going to be a big factor early in the season, especially as they face teams with far greater continuity, such as Detroit, even as they themselves were shorthanded without Blake Griffin.
That’s not to say there aren’t inherent problems with the Pacers right now. Defensively, there wasn’t the same kind of grittiness that was on display in recent years. The departures of Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph no doubt contributes to that, but how quickly this team can grow on that side of the ball may end up playing a big factor in how wins and losses shake out, especially in these early season games, many of which are against these Pistons.
The Pacers have a couple days off to figure some things out before heading out on the road for three games, starting with a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.