One (impressively) bad quarter spoiled an otherwise positive season debut for the Indiana Pacers, ultimately succumbing to what would wind up being a 33-13 third quarter loss against the Charlotte Hornets. The Pacers cruised through the first 27 minutes, leading by as many as 23, but a badly timed 24-0 Hornets run undid all of that work, setting up a back-and-forth game late that ultimately went Charlotte’s way.
The Pacers really did have everything going their way up until that point, however, scoring the first six points of the season and never looking back, inching their lead higher and higher, scoring 75 first half points in the process. Domantas Sabonis dominated against Mason Plumlee, scoring 14 first quarter points all around the basket before stepping out behind the arc in the second with eight in that quarter.
Not only was Sabonis getting everything he wanted, so too did rookie Chris Duarte, who had 11 points in the first quarter himself, including the buzzer beater that put Indiana ahead by double figures for the first time.
Duarte also had a solid second quarter encore with five more points, though he did see his minutes limited with an apparent injury that sent him to the locker room late in the half, though he did return with no lingering issues.
Defensively, Indiana did their job as well, holding Charlotte to just 43% shooting in the half with Myles Turner blocking three of his four shots in that time period, despite being limited with foul trouble. At the break, the Pacers led 75-59, though curiously, that did seem to be a bit of a small advantage given some of the breaks the Hornets created for themselves in that half.
After scoring on back-to-back possessions in which lazy passing by the Pacers turned into quick points, the Hornets also capitalized on chaotic possessions, commanding the 50/50 balls, and hitting a pair of big threes off of broken plays in the half. That’s a light 11-point addition for a Hornets team that was otherwise completely out of it heading into the break.
Duarte opened the third with his fourth three of the game, pushing Indiana’s lead to 23 at 82-59. Sabonis would keep the lead in the 20’s a minute later when things suddenly shifted. Back-to-back turnovers from Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon led to five points from the Hornets, who were suddenly off to the races.
While Charlotte found a rhythm, Indiana’s offense completely broke down, reverting to the classic “long jumpers with no rhythm” on possessions that never sniff the paint. While the Pacers went scoreless for the next six and a half minutes, Charlotte couldn’t stop scoring for six and a half minutes. Indiana missed nine straight shots, committed five turnovers, and had zero second chance opportunities.
The Hornets meanwhile, were a cool 9-11 in that stretch, led in a big way by LeMelo Ball, who was there all night for Charlotte, scoring 31 points on 7-9 shooting from three point range. Things didn’t improve much for the Pacers heading into the fourth, as the Hornets continued to beat up the Pacers, eventually inching their lead to double figures at 106-96 at the 7:09 mark of the fourth.
Sabonis hit a three to stop the bleeding and out of a Charlotte timeout as a response, appeared to finally be able to play coherent offensive basketball again, scoring five more courtesy of Sabonis and Brogdon to cut the lead to two. Ball continued to...ball, hitting a three, but Sabonis’s shot stayed true, responding with a three of his own to keep the game deficit at two.
Brogdon, who to that point, had had a tough night shooting the ball, stepped into a confident three to give the Pacers the lead. At that point, the Pacers and Hornets would swap the lead eight times in the final 4:33, including five separate ties. Big shot making from Duarte helped give Indiana a pair of leads, but Gordon Hayward was in the right place down the stretch to respond.
Hayward would miss a layup attempt with 15 seconds, leading to a light foul call on Miles Bridges, sending Torrey Craig to the line. Craig would drain both free throws, putting Indiana on top. Hayward would miss again on Charlotte’s final possession, but an inability to pull in the crucial board this time sent P.J. Washington to the line, swapping the advantage in Charlotte’s favor with 4.6 seconds remaining.
On the final play, Sabonis caught the ball at the three point arc and attempted to spin his way towards the basket, but Washington stood firm, forcing the miss from the side, resulting in the 123-122 win for the Hornets. It didn’t appear to be an optimal call in getting Sabonis a good look, a final nail in Indiana’s season opening hopes.
Correct play or not, it wasn’t a situation the Pacers should’ve found themselves in to begin with. Even ignoring the 24-0 Charlotte run (an advisable situation for one who wishes to find contentment), the Pacers simply weren’t sharp enough at times tonight to prevent this loss from taking place.
The obvious area of struggle came in turnovers, where the Pacers committed 17 to Charlotte’s eight. It never quite appeared they were able to match the effort the Hornets showed up with defensively, which created enough havoc to disrupt the Pacers (hey, that happened in the preseason too). As a result, Charlotte outscored Indiana 22-8 in points off turnovers, an absolute gut punch of a difference in a one-point game.
Rick Carlisle’s season debut with the Pacers saw an eight-man rotation, spending much of the night mixing and matching lineups. That resulted in 40 minutes for Brogdon and 39 for Sabonis, but also included a fourth quarter run that featured Craig and Jeremy Lamb in place of Turner and Justin Holiday. While Craig’s place in the lineup proved fruitful in terms of his overall activity, the decision to play Lamb over Holiday was a bit of a baffling one.
Lamb for the night finished 1-9 shooting, missing a pair of good looks in the fourth quarter, the second of which coming with the game tied with under two to go. Sabonis would turn three into one, but it was a curious decision for Carlisle when Holiday has proven himself as a guy capable of hitting big shots down the stretch of games.
With Lamb hitting on just one of his six threes, that left the bench bereft of scoring. Craig scored five and T.J. McConnell got to six, but was less than effective in getting there, going 3-7 with seven assists (and two blocks?). The run they had with the starters perhaps played a role in that, especially with Sabonis and Duarte (and eventually Brogdon), coming up with big buckets throughout the night.
All told, Sabonis finished with 33 points on 13-19 shooting. He had 15 rebounds, but did have six turnovers, combining with Turner for 10 turnovers between the two of them. The real surprise came in Sabonis’s three point shot. He went 4-6 from deep, his most prolific three point shooting night since his rookie year with Oklahoma City, where he was made more of a shooter than he has been with Indiana.
Indiana made 17 threes on the night, piling up 47 attempts in the process. It was feast or famine for Indiana from deep tonight, the stretch in the third standing out as a particularly ugly stretch before they found their rhythm again in the fourth. Duarte led the way in makes on 6-9, capping an all-time rookie debut for a Pacer, finishing with 27.
Duarte’s night validated his success in the Summer League and in preseason, potentially giving Indiana a much-needed scoring threat right out of the gate with Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren still out. Brogdon would finish with 28 points, coming to life in the fourth after struggling shooting in the first three quarters. He shot 4-6 in the final period, hitting two of his threes.
Holiday was the fourth Pacer in double figures with 11. He got there with a solid midrange showing, hitting a trio of jumpers to overcome a struggling 1-7 night from beyond the arc. Turner scored nine with seven rebounds and four blocks, but was limited in the first half with foul trouble.
The positives tonight were there for the Pacers, who may be more of a work in progress than previously anticipated under Carlisle, though some familiar negatives popped up in that third quarter when things became completely bogged down. On the bright side, it’s just one of 82, a journey that will continue Friday night when they face the Washington Wizards on the road, looking to split their two-game road trip.