Scoring seven points in the final 1:25 to give the Pacers the lead for good in a 116-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren continued to appear every bit as magical as the theme park where he is putting on his regularly scheduled fireworks shows. Squaring up Anthony Davis on the clear-out off an Iverson cut, the 26-year-old forward paused for approximately a nano-second to shift his weight before immediately attacking the basket and suspending himself in mid-air like a piece of living art to convert this shot with a bigger, X-shaped body doing the absolute most to setup a roadblock:
Thirty-five seconds later, the talk-of-the-bubble tried the same thing again; only this time, when he got knocked off his route (perhaps with the help of a push-off), he flowed directly into another isolation, and completely unbothered, skipped merrily down the lane for a soft, high-arching push-shot.
Then, with the Lakers apparently disinterested in sending two to the ball or defending above the level of the screen, he audaciously pulled the trigger on a deep, pull-up three, of which he attempted less than one per game prior to the hiatus.
Capping off yet another near 40-point scoring outing, Warren’s late-game performance was extraordinary in that, for a player who was mostly put in the position to be a play finisher this season and rarely stepped into threes, it felt almost ordinary — as if the ball at this point has no choice but to submit to his will and either crawl over the front of the rim or sail crisply through the net.
And yet, Mr. Bubble wasn’t the only player who came up big in the clutch. At the other end of the floor, LeBron had scored 28 points through the game’s first 46 minutes; carving up Indiana’s defense for layup after layup during a stretch at the start of the second quarter that called for defensive adjustments. From there on out, whenever the preternatural scorer and passer was in attack mode or opted to walk into the post, the Pacers packed the paint at the much lesser risk of getting punished by LA’s supporting cast of (mostly) struggling shooters.
Too big, too strong, and too skilled, James still managed to two-step around Indiana’s carefully choreographed 2.9 dances (referencing the 2.9 seconds a player can legally stand in the lane) on occasion, but a bigger threat still loomed in crunch-time: Targeted switches.
Though the four-time MVP had only sparsely attacked Aaron Holiday on defense through the game’s first three quarters, he sought out the smaller guard with haste during winning time. Down one with under two minutes to play, LeBron motioned for Quinn Cook to come set a screen, only for Aaron to jump out to the ball and recover to his own assignment. With Malcolm Brogdon providing a gap for him to run back to his man with high hands after defending against the screen, the second-year guard then muddied the waters on the drive by hopping toward the nail.
Granted, one of many offensive rebounds on the night resulted in a putback that put the Lakers back on top, but the initial action was nonetheless neutralized, with James instead being spun into a tough, fadeaway jumper. After Warren answered with his push-shot, LeBron returned to the same tactic, and while he certainly had an opportunity to turn the corner, as can be seen below, his decision to square up at the top of the key opened the door for Brogdon to regain defensive position without needing to switch at the same time as T.J. Warren squeezed middle to apply further pressure.
Then, after LeBron passed and got the ball back, Brogdon and Aaron successfully navigated around the guard-to-guard screens again, which ultimately led to Anthony Davis, who shot 3-of-14 for the game against a steady diet of double teams, taking (and missing) a three at the end of the shot-clock.
Admittedly, LeBron probably wasn’t quite as aggressive in some of those moments as he could have been, or perhaps would be in a game of greater consequence, but Aaron, by avoiding unforced switches and slowing his momentum, still played a critical role in disrupting the point forward’s rhythm — which was the only source of offense the Lakers could reliably count on (aside from Cook’s shooting) — at the same time as Warren was conducting his own symphony at the other end of the floor.
On a night when the Pacers attempted 16 fewer shots than the Lakers, surrendering 15 offensive rebounds and coughing up 20 turnovers, it’s probably fair to question the sustainability of shooting 52-45-92 as a team against more consistently engaged defenses and exaggerated game-plans; and yet, with every answered defensive quibble, lights out performance from Warren, and flash from Oladipo, they just keep providing more reasons to believe in their belief.