Picking up their second straight win, the Indiana Pacers had about as feel-good a game as possible when shooting under 40% (though finishing just above). Offense escaped both them and the Cleveland Cavaliers nearly the entire night, but it was the Pacers that brought an extra gear in defensive intensity to help them close out the win.
As a franchise, the Pacers have made “winning ugly” an artform, so it was only fitting they’d bring out the vintage on-court effort when debuting in the FloJo inspired Statement jerseys. The Pacers held Cleveland to just 36.8% shooting from the floor, largely getting there through excellent defense. Indiana had 10 blocks to Cleveland’s one, all without Myles Turner.
The absence of Turner moved T.J. Leaf into the starting lineup for just the second time in his career, but he was pushed to the bench just 2:48 into the game after picking up his second foul. This, combined with terrible shooting put the Pacers in an early deficit against the Cavs, trailing 26-17 with under three minutes remaining. From there, Indiana held Cleveland scoreless the rest of the quarter even as they managed just two points themselves.
In the second quarter, the bench found something resembling capable scoring, outscoring the Cavaliers 10-2 to open the second to give them their first lead of the game. The defensive intensity of Aaron Holiday was a big boost for the second unit as was the excellent contributions on both ends from Goga Bitadze. Bitadze had four points, two rebounds, and a block in the run, looking much more in tune with the game after looking in over his head just two days ago.
The starters, particularly the trio of Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Jeremy Lamb returned to push the Pacers to a six point lead late in the quarter, taking a 42-37 advantage into the break. In holding the Cavaliers to 37 first half points, they did so by limiting them to just one offensive rebound, which exasperated Cleveland’s poor shooting, resulting in just 11 second quarter points.
Three point shooting escaped the Pacers all night, so the times they did hit threes proved crucial. Justin Holiday’s three late in the third quarter helped push the Pacers ahead by nine and Bitadze hit his first career three in response to a timely Kevin Love triple early in the fourth, regaining Indiana’s nine point advantage.
Jordan Clarkson did well to keep the Cavaliers alive late, enough so that they were able to extend the game tremendously in the final minute after a curious continuation call resulted in a three point play from Colin Sexton. The Pacers would struggle mightily against the trap and full court press in the final minute, but Brogdon’s free throw shooting helped keep Indiana with a healthy lead. J. Holiday’s excellent contest of a Clarkson three point attempt that would’ve made it a three point game effectively closed the door on the game, giving Indiana their second straight win.
Brogdon led the Pacers on the night with 25 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Half of Brogdon’s assists were to Sabonis, all finding Sabonis going towards the basket in spectacular fashion.
Sabonis himself finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds, the latter a career high on a night when Indiana’s effort on the glass helped them to a 57-46 advantage, including 12-3 on the offensive end. Sabonis hit all nine of his shots at the rim, continuing his exemplary post play.
As poor as the Pacers shot as a team, the combination of Brogdon, Sabonis, and Lamb combined for 54.5%, as Lamb completed his own double double with 21 points and 10 rebounds. As a contrast, not a single Cavaliers play shot over 50% despite a trio of 20+ nights themselves from Love, Sexton, and Clarkson.
Despite not shooting well, the bench did have their best scoring game of the year, topping Cleveland’s bench 35-33. Bitadze led the way for the second unit with 10 points, nine rebounds, and four blocks, doing his best Turner impression, hitting a big time three in the corner early in the fourth.
Most impressive was Bitadze’s jump from the last game to this one. After looking hopelessly lost and surviving entirely on instincts against Brooklyn, he was much more in control of the game tonight, flashing playmaking abilities on both ends, again, not unlike what Turner can do.
A. Holiday was a boon for the Pacers defensively in the first half, picking up a pair of steals, though he continues to miss everything, going 0-4. He has some company in Leaf, however, who was also 0-4 in just eight minutes starting. Neither player appears to have any sort of confidence in their shot at the moment, and it is taking away from what both can do well, be it rebounding with Leaf or pushing the pace with Holiday.
As such, the extended minutes T.J. McConnell got weren’t unjustified given McConnell’s play in the second half. Indiana as a game was a dreadful 5-27 from three point range, so for McConnell to put the ball on the floor and give the Pacers three points the old fashioned way was a real boost after Cleveland had scored nine of 11 to push the game to two in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.
The ability to hit three pointers was best on display from J. Holiday, who hit a pair as part of his eight points, both coming in the second half. His contest on Clarkson’s potential one-possession three also helped in sealing the win. Doug McDermott struggled shooting from deep himself, but did score eight on his ability to get to the basket. JaKarr Sampson made his regular season debut with the early foul trouble to Leaf, scoring four in 10 minutes with a block.
Short-handed or not, the Pacers have really picked up their level of play in the last two games. Effort has been the go-to for this franchise the past two seasons in how they’ve managed to step outside of their original expectations and overcome possible talent deficiencies. To see this team, with so many new players, bring that to the court even when struggling so much offensively is encouraging, especially given the wealth of struggles the Pacers faced in the first three games of the year.
The Pacers will wrap up a quick two game home stand on Sunday when they face the Chicago Bulls, who themselves improved to 2-4 on the season after picking up a home win against Detroit.