Somehow, someway, the Indiana Pacers dug (Doug*?) deep enough to top the Denver Nuggets in the first game of their five game road trip. The Pacers needed a staggering 41 points in the fourth, a season high, to complete what was an eight-point comeback in the final period.
Sure, the abrupt turnaround was in play, technically anyway, given Indiana’s ability to prevent the Nuggets from ever putting the Pacers to rest through the first three quarters. It was an odd game, one where Indiana’s defense was incredibly porous at the worst times, but yet, they had allowed just 81 points and did the bare minimum offensively to play within seven.
The 41 points was a season high in the fourth quarter, so it only made sense the Pacers would start with a season low in the first quarter, stumbling their way to 15 points. Indiana got there by missing their first nine shots, few of those coming with any sort of rhythm. Whatever game plan the Pacers entered with, they were completely ill-equipped to compete with Denver’s swarming defense.
By the time T.J. Warren put Indiana on the board, however, the Pacers trailed just 6-3. While favorable for Indiana in the sense they weren’t getting blown out of the water despite a 28% shooting first quarter, it also effectively set the tone for the rest of the game. Warren scored nine in the quarter, finishing on a 4-0 run late in the quarter making it 15-13.
The Pacers would be outscored 6-2 to close the first, setting up a second quarter in which they would do all they could to keep the game from getting out of hand. They showcased an innate inability to trade baskets with the Nuggets, using three pointers vs. Denver’s “whatever we want” play in the paint to keep it around five points, but not getting stops limited Indiana’s run abilities, tacking on a measly 5-0 run halfway through the quarter.
Malcolm Brogdon closed the half with a layup, tying the second 29-29 to keep the deficit at six. In the third, Nikola Jokic finally put Denver up double figures, scoring the first seven of the half to make it a 10-game. The Pacers responded with a 7-0 run, but again got caught trading buckets throughout the rest of the third, never again piecing together consecutive points in the quarter.
With Denver inching the lead back up to 10 with 30 seconds left in the third, Brogdon again bailed Indiana out with an end of quarter basket, this time a three to make it an 81-74 game heading into the fourth. Doug McDermott scored to open the fourth, bringing them to within five, but déjà vu set in yet again with a lack of stops on defense dropping the Pacers down by eight with 8:10 remaining.
By this point, the Pacers began to run more smoothly on offense. Gone were constant tipped passes as costly turnovers, replaced by T.J. McConnell finding guys again and again, dishing on three straight possessions to McDermott and Justin Holiday as part of an 8-0 run that tied the game for the first time.
After going back and forth, the Pacers finally broke through behind McDermott’s shooting, a corner three that put them on top 98-97 with 4:13 left.
It was then where Domantas Sabonis began to become a difference maker in the game. After his put back tied the game, he dished to McDermott in the corner for the go-ahead three. He then had four offensive rebounds on the following possession, finally scoring the first of six straight points to make it a five point lead with 90 seconds on the clock.
Sabonis completed his first career triple double on another McDermott three, putting Indiana on top by six. After Denver responded with three of their own, Brogdon put a final stamp on the win, blitzing past Mason Plumlee on the switch for a big left-handed jam.
The win, Indiana’s first in Denver since 2007, was always in reach, but felt incredibly unlikely given the flow of the game to that point. Needing a spark, the Pacers got just that from McDermott, who led the way with 24 points on 9-10 shooting, hitting six threes, four in the final quarter.
McDermott’s contributions were invaluable on a night when both Aaron Holiday and Jeremy Lamb couldn’t get anything going, filling in a rather sizable scoring gap. J. Holiday followed it up well, scoring 14 points, going 3-7 from deep. McConnell dished seven assists, six to his fellow reserves in McDermott and Holiday, four of those resulting in threes.
Four Pacers reached 22 points or higher, including a trio of 22-point outings from Warren, Sabonis, and Brogdon. Sabonis’s play late gets the glamour for not only how he stepped up with the game on the line in both scoring and rebounding, but in completing Indiana’s first triple double since George Hill in 2015. Sabonis had 15 rebounds and 10 assists to go with his 22 points.
Getting there wasn’t easy, however. With early foul trouble between both him and Myles Turner, there were a lot of moments in the first half where as the focus of the defense, Sabonis was left in the middle of nowhere, unable to contend with the play of Jokic. When in the game, however, Turner helped tremendously in freeing up Sabonis, playing really well in the thankless areas despite fouling out in just 20 minutes.
With McDermott and Sabonis soaking up the late game glory, it was also early play from Warren that helped set up the opportunity for the win. Warren had nine of Indiana’s 15 first quarter points, then scored nine more in the third as Denver’s offense hummed, his final bucket of the third bringing Indiana back within seven.
Brogdon scored six in the final 43 seconds, 4-4 from the free throw line, to ensure the victory. He had eight assists for the game, all going to Sabonis and Warren. In fact, Warren scored all nine of his first quarter points of his off of Brogdon’s passes as the Pacers totaled 31 as a team.
The Pacers were outscored 64-48 in the paint and had 15 turnovers to Denver’s nine. However, Indiana managed to limit the overall damage of those turnovers, getting outscored 11-10, while their bread and butter turned out to be their three point shooting.
Indiana hit 13 threes on 44.8% shooting while the Nuggets languished from deep, going 3-23. After the first quarter, it was three point shooting that allowed them to at least keep the game within striking distance and though it never really felt like the Pacers were going to ever capitalize on that advantage, they kept themselves alive, just long enough, to stage the furious comeback.
The win marks Indiana’s fifth overall, and their fourth straight on the road. It puts Indiana 1-0 on this five game road trip and 3-0 in this seven game run against Western Conference foes. The standings are also tightening up again, with one game separating the 3rd and 6th place teams. Indiana sits in fifth, trailing Boston only on percentage points for fourth.
The altitude didn’t affect Indiana much tonight in closing out the win, but whether there will be any lingering effects remain to be seen as they face a quick turnaround, traveling further West to face the Utah Jazz tomorrow night in a difficult back-to-back. The Jazz enter playing their best basketball of the season, boasting the West’s best home record of 16-3, surely remembering Indiana’s big win over them in November.