In back-to-back overtime games, Indiana’s starting centers each made an impression on the end of the floor for which they aren’t typically associated.
Here’s what we learned.
Myles Turner, being assertive
After finishing with more turnovers (4) than made field goals (3) in Charlotte and before battling foul trouble against Miami, Myles Turner had a striking moment of awakening in Washington, scoring a career-high 40 points on 22 shots while playing primarily in the role that suits him best — as a pick-and-pop, floor spacing big and cutter. For much of the night, whether knifing through open space and seeking contact or stepping into shots without the slightest bit of hesitation, he consistently leveraged himself as the threat that defenses often actively neglect to perceive him as.
Just look at these clips.
When two defenders converged on Sabonis, Turner either immediately slipped to the rim.
Or, pulled the trigger from deep.
On baseline drives, if his man covered the corner, he cut from the wing to the basket.
When his defender laid off in transition, he let the ball fly.
And pump-faked his way to the rim with long, elegant strides — taking advantage of the fact that the second big back in transition oftentimes loads to the ball, resulting in off-balance closeouts.
If no one boxed him out, he actively pursued the glass and converted numerous putbacks.
And, when his man scurried across the lane to provide help with two on the ball, he shot over the smaller rotating defender, without barely even needing to dip the ball.
Aggressively transforming blatant signs of disrespect into actualized competitive advantages, Indiana’s longest tenured player responded exactly how he needs to when opponents don’t pay him enough attention — which, as it turns out, continued to be the case in certain instances, even as he continued to stack up made baskets.
For example, this was the scene in the third quarter, despite the fact that he had already amassed 28 points, including 3-of-7 shooting from deep. Wyd, Wizards?
Tellingly, however, there were a few choreographed exceptions. After getting burned by this low-post reaction set on the first possession of the game, the Wizards anticipated the back-screen at the start of the fourth quarter.
Likewise, Washington also started switching to neutralize him in the pick-and-pop — which, in part, explains why less of the offense was tilted toward him during crunch-time.
Double-drags, meanwhile, became less lopsided for the tagger than usual between he and Sabonis, but with T.J. McConnell standing in the corner (sigh), the ball had a tendency to find the “most” open man first.
Aside from a putback and a pull-up two, which he was forced to jack at the end of the shot-clock after being thrown a ticking time bomb, that twirling layup was his only shot attempt during the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and OT. That said, while switches made it more difficult to call plays for him late, it wasn’t exactly as if that many plays had been called for him in the first place, as he was more so dominating in the cracks and manipulating shifts in surrounding gravity as an ever-ready and unyielding target.
“Full disclosure, it wasn’t something I like doing but it was all for the good of the team,” Turner said in the afterglow of his scoring outburst with regard to his share of the offense over the last two seasons. “...But I knew for us to win and the players we had out here, someone was going to have to do it.”
Turner on sacrificing his offensive role in the last few seasons: "Full disclosure, it wasn't something I liked doing but it was all for the good of the team. ... But I knew for us to win and all the players we had out here, someone was going to have to do it." #GoldBlooded pic.twitter.com/VgekX2h4wL— Bally Sports Indiana (@BallySportsIN) October 23, 2021
Some of that is hard to follow. Granted, he more often plays outside of the action rather than within it when Sabonis is on the floor for obvious triggerman reasons, but it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where either of the Nates would’ve discouraged him from pursuing the offensive glass, shooting when he’s open, or attacking closeouts, as he did against the Wizards, and it certainly isn’t to the benefit of the team when he avoids looking at the rim.
Through three games, he’s averaged the same amount of touches per game (38.3) as last season (39.7) — a number which, admittedly, is somewhat reduced by his lack of playing time in two fourth quarters. Still, for a player whose ideal role with this team involves playing off-the-catch, whether shooting, driving, or cutting, his level of involvement oftentimes isn’t dictated by what the offense does for him; but rather, as he mentions and supremely displayed in Washington, by how he asserts himself.
Domantas Sabonis, looking nimble
While perhaps not as eye-popping as exploding for 40 points, Sabonis also impressed on the end of the floor he isn’t known for — even going so far as to produce a stop on the final play of consequence. With under two minutes to play in overtime, P.J. Tucker screened Bam Adebayo into a screen for Duncan Robinson, creating enough defensive confusion for Miami’s sharpshooter to easily shake loose from three.
A few possessions later, however, notice how Sabonis, in recognizing and immediately calling out the same alignment, hopped around the brush screen and fluidly switched out, denying Robinson from the potential repeat performance.
Of course, that read alone wasn’t the only area where he demonstrated improvement. In a resumption from preseason and scheme change from the more conservative drop coverage that was predominantly deployed at the five-spot in the prior two games, Sabonis continues to look more agile jumping out above the level of screens, whether pouncing for steals or simply deterring the ball away from the basket.
None of that was guaranteed last season, when he struggled to prevent opposing guards from turning the corner and routinely gave up screen splits.
That’s a dramatic difference, especially considering that in the game against the Mavericks, in which the Pacers were severely short-handed and impulsively decided to deploy a hedge scheme without much in the way of available lateral size, Bjorkgren ended up shifting Sabonis onto Josh Green in spots. Not only to make use of his length as the low-man, but also to avoid involving his footspeed in the screening action. On Saturday, in what was the second night of back-to-back overtimes, he was defending Bam Adebayo and stepping out to greet Jimmy Butler above the level of the screen. By comparison, that’s a positive sign in terms of potential scheme versatility, no matter how small the sample size.
Another area where he stood out defensively was in transition — which made for an interesting dynamic with regard to how he was used at the other end of the floor. On the one hand, given that the team only scored eight points in the third quarter, there’s a strong case to be made that some of the passive dribbling out of five-out, which wasn’t loosening the defense, needed to be replaced by closer-range touches. On the other, however, because Sabonis was operating like a turnstile for his teammates at the top of the key, he was also in position to get back quicker, resulting in several altered shots at the rim.
That said, another way to thwart those types of scores would be to force the other team to take the ball out of the net, so while he obviously deserves credit for staying vertical and acting as a stopper, it’s a delicate balance. In any case, the fact that he made an impact at solo five was an interesting juxtaposition to last season, when after fouling out during the second game in Miami, the win was earned on defense during overtime, while he — in the reverse situation to that of Turner on Saturday — was on the bench.
All of which, in part, says the quiet part out loud about the current state of the roster and the inherent challenges of managing all of the bigs at once, especially since Goga Bitadze has yet to play and Isaiah Jackson has logged all of two minutes. From what strides Turner made at finding the gaps in Washington to how Sabonis looked moving on defense against the Heat, both have already shown some flashes of what needs to happen for them to better support each other in tandem; and yet, through three games, they’ve only played 37 percent of the team’s total fourth-quarter and overtime minutes together. To be fair, Charlotte plays small and Oshae Brissett, in demonstrating his weak-side instincts and scoring 18 points to go with nine rebounds, earned getting to stay on the floor against the Heat, but the fact that downsizing already occurred in both instances, without Caris LeVert or T.J. Warren even being available, is also sort of the point.
Admittedly, every game is unique and each of Indiana’s centers obviously made the case with their play to stay big against the Wizards. It’s possible that happens more often as the season progresses. Otherwise, continuing to balance the value of versatility and accountability against alternating between two bigs, one of whom has been vocal about broadening limited perceptions of his game, while shelving two others, seems like a difficult needle to thread.