A day after all five starters scored in double figures, Indiana’s bench took over where the first unit left off and then some, exploding for 91 of the team’s 130 points en route to a second-consecutive win over the Sacramento Kings on foreign soil.
As such, we’re once again shining a spotlight on the day’s standout moments and plays (this time, with an eye toward the reserves), while also taking a closer look at what fell flat. Here’s the winners and losers from Game 2 of 2 in India.
Winner: Edmond Sumner, wheeling and dealing
Never one to disappoint in the preseason, Edmond Sumner had himself a moment during the second quarter of Saturday’s game. Scoring or assisting on 19 of the team’s 46 points in the frame, the 6-foot-6 slasher didn’t just appear as though he had been shot out of cannon when he exploded to the rim; he showcased improved skill, effortlessly draining a step-back jumper while also completing a broader array of passes.
Granted, there were still a few times where he either penetrated the lane and ran out of ideas or he simply made the wrong read, but on back-to-back possessions he found Sampson for a cutting lay-up and then proceeded to set up the bruising forward for a three at the top of the key — both of which are a departure from his usual tactic of attacking deep and then delivering a pocket pass for the big to take a couple of steps toward the rim. His defense is still ahead of his offense (I mean, he successfully slithered through an elevator action on Friday night and almost blocked the resulting three-point attempt), but surrounding him with shooters and unleashing his speed made it seem as though that gap has the potential to be less wide. And, it was just plain fun.
Even with the bench mob firing on all cylinders, it was still a bummer that injuries held Goga Bitadze (sprained right ankle) and T.J. Leaf (right quad strain) out of both games. Bitadze has yet to make his debut for the Pacers after visa approval delays prevented him from playing in Summer League, and there’s been plenty of buzz for Leaf in the run-up to preseason. Still, it wasn’t just about missing out on getting a sneak peak on their progress, their absences also made it tougher to hold out Turner and Sabonis for rest.
On top of that, it was interesting that McMillan opted for JaKarr Sampson’s stockier versatility as the third big in the rotation. With all due respect to Sampson for racking up 15 points in 19 minutes and even knocking down a couple of threes, it seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity not to at least get a glimpse at T.J. Warren at the four — especially with Leaf and Bitadze unavailable to sponge up minutes. To be fair, Sacramento played big with Marvin Bagley and Dewayne Dedmon in the starting lineup and brought in Caleb Swanigan off the bench, but it still might’ve been worth it to attempt to counter size and heft with small-ball in order to gather some preliminary research on how Warren fared alongside either Turner or Sabonis.
Winner: Brotherly Love
In addition to the endless supply of Holiday-themed puns that seemingly write themselves (Happy Holidays!), one of the biggest boons to having the brothers Holiday on the same roster is that they’re brothers. They know each other, and they’re aware of each other.
For instance, over 90 percent of Justin’s threes were assisted last season, and he was substantially more accurate firing closer attempts from the corners (41.4 percent) than he was launching longer shots from above the break (31.5 percent). He also didn’t fair so well in Memphis when his shot profile was divested of threes, and replaced with off-the-dribble forays. At age 30, Justin still has the tools to provide 3-and-D depth on the cheap, but he’s going to need his younger brother (as well as the rest of Indiana’s guards) to put those tools to work. On the flip side, Aaron still needs to improve his cognizance of shooters when he collapses the defense.
Enter: The Holiday-to-Holiday connection, when Aaron fired a pass to his brother in the corner instead of trying to float up a difficult lay-up.
With Sacramento sending two defenders to the ball and actively pulling weak-side defenders to the middle, the weak-side corner was there for the taking, and the Pacers — including Aaron — were happy to oblige. On the night, Indiana attempted 10 corner threes, a nearly four shot bump from their per game volume last season (6.14).
Loser: T.J. McConnell playing off-ball
In a departure from Friday’s rotation, McConnell entered the game ahead of Aaron Holiday in the second of the back-to-back set, and he had some nice moments probing for lay-ups and pulling-up for two while keeping the offense moving.
That’s his strength on that end of the floor, so when he’s in the game it’s probably best that he be the guard initiating the action in the pick-and-roll — especially since opponents are well-aware that he isn’t particularly effective without the ball in his hands.
Sumner didn’t make the right read here, but look at how far Yogi Ferrell is cheating off of McConnell in the corner on this possession.
This is brazen even for the way that the Kings were attempting to prevent Sabonis from gaining momentum on the roll, and it speaks to the challenges of playing a non-shooter off the ball. Of players averaging at least 19 minutes per game last season, only Ben Simmons averaged fewer threes per game among guards last season than McConnell.
Loser: Transition Defense
It was evident a few times in the early going of both games that Turner and Sabonis are still ironing out their responsibilities on defense when playing side-by-side, particularly in transition. Normally, if they’re ahead of the last offensive player, the second big back is the player responsible for loading to the ball with the intention of stopping middle penetration. In this case, that’s Turner, but Sabonis had already jumped the gun — perhaps out of his habit for playing the five.
Rather than protecting the basket as the first big back, Indiana’s lefty center created a moment of confusion as to who was guarding who when the task immediately at hand was to guard the team not the match-up. Once the ball was stopped, and it was necessary for both of them to guard their assignments, enough chaos had ensued that Bagley was able to shake free easily off the roll with Turner too high and no tagger in sight.
Turner racked up five blocks, and he even recovered in impressive fashion when Bagley got the step on him attacking his top foot off the dribble, but it was evident that sorting out defensive assignments for these two is going to be a work in progress, both in the half-court as well as when turning end-to-end.