In the last 10 days, the Indiana Pacers have played against every NBA team in the state of California, flying north from LA to Sacramento before doubling back to San Francisco after making brief pitstops in Utah and Portland, Oregon. That’s why, for an undermanned team that was playing on zero days rest in the absence of nearly every player on the roster capable of handling the ball and initiating offense, the Pacers had moments where they very much looked like an undermanned team that was playing on zero days rest in the absence of nearly every player on the roster capable of handling the ball and initiating offense.
In the span of five seconds, Jordan Poole transformed what was a missed layup from Andrew Nembhard on one end of the floor into a made layup for the Warriors at the other. With three Pacers standing in the paint, Jonathan Kuminga converted a tip-shot, triggering a timeout from Rick Carlisle. When the fourth quarter started, Golden State scored the first six points of the frame, trimming the lead down to two for the Pacers, with two of the scores coming on easy, straight-line drives. If the game had merely turned out to be a schedule loss, it would’ve been understandable, if not commendable. After all, in the wake of three consecutive thrashings, Isaiah Jackson had actually converted multiple shots in the paint (REALLY!), Bennedict Mathurin earned his first career start and got back to getting to the free throw line, Kendall Brown was the first sub off the bench, Jalen Smith recorded at least two blocks and two made threes for only the second time this season, and Nembhard had already amassed 21 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds through three quarters.
Overall, there was enough warm fuzzy feelings to outweigh a cold and prickly outcome.
But, Indiana’s rookie out of Gonzaga wasn’t done yet — and neither were the Pacers. Instead, from the point in which the Warriors tied the game at 95-95 with 8:27 to play on a driving, finger roll layup from Poole, Nembhard proceeded to score or assist on the next six made field goals for Indiana — sinking the reigning champions just as he had done a week ago against the Lakers. Only, this time, with the Pacers outscoring the Warriors 17-9 over the final eight minutes of the game, he did so while not only battening down the hatches on defense but also steering the ship on offense. Unlike his buzzer-beating three-pointer in Los Angeles, he wasn’t the pressure release who was left uncovered on the final possession; he was handling the pressure of being a lead ball-handler during crunch-time while racking up over 40 minutes of action.
And, for the most part, despite playing as part of a closing lineup alongside Buddy Hield, Bennedict Mathurin, Oshae Brissett, and Isaiah Jackson that had logged exactly one minute together prior to Monday night, he was largely unflappable.
Take this defensive possession. It ends with Nembhard taking a charge from Donte DiVincenzo. That’s notable enough. Look at what happened just before, though. After switching the initial ball screen, Nembhard helps off the five-man, peeling on the penetration and providing a stop-gap for Jackson to ultimately block the shot in recovery like the Kool-Aid man busting through a brick-wall.
Then, when Brissett mishandled the rebound, he stood up just long enough to take another body blow on the opposite side of the charge circle.
At this point, he had played 33 minutes — less than 24 hours removed from recording more touches (105.0) in Portland out of necessity than Haliburton has averaged for the season as the league’s leader (96.8). Also, consider the following. Last season, before Haliburton and Hield were traded to the Pacers, Jonathan Kuminga played the part of a playground bully, stealing the former’s lunch money without the benefit of a screen from latter.
With that in mind, spot what changed for Haliburton’s understudy. Nembhard is also being defended by Kuminga; however, unlike what was the case for the Kings in that instance, the Pacers rank 29th in isolation frequency. When the offense stalls, Indiana aims to get to the next action — typically, with Hield dissecting the arc as a reignition screener, lightly brushing in front of the ball to create just enough breathing room for a driving angle. For Nembhard, who is more dependent on craft than speed, that means gliding to his spot and playing off contact, which he would soon absorb yet again at the other end of the floor.
Granted, it’s fair to question why Anthony Lamb didn’t drop-off this pass to DiVencenzo, but that doesn’t change the fact that Nembhard has now been toppled over three times in the span of a minute, drawing his second charge of the fourth quarter — which is more than can be claimed on the season for most of the players on the roster, with the exception of Brissett (3), Smith (2), and T.J. McConnell (2).
For the next several possessions, with both teams exchanging misses, Kuminga was unleashed as a full-court pest, adhering himself to the left hip of a player who is quirky in that he seems to prefer dribbling off screens with his left as opposed to his strong hand.
In that regard, while likely only intended to push Nembhard toward the sideline, this actually almost serves as an exaggerated adjustment in addition to just being annoying.
In order to make what was functioning like an itchy sweater less itchy, Nembhard beat the pressure by attacking the pressure, motoring downhill and into the body of Kuminga while maintaining his poise and punishing Poole for gambling and loading up on the ball.
On the next offensive possession, the Pacers again relied on Buddy Hield to get to the next action, sticking to their principles as far as not wasting their time dribbling against switches in favor of screen help. With DiVencenzo reacting to the gentle whisper from Hield, Nembhard pulls the trigger from way downtown — notching his first make of the season from outside 30 feet.
After Isaiah Jackson came up with a huge defensive stop on a switch against Curry at the other end, the Warriors dialed the pressure up by yet another notch, trapping ball screens. No worries, Nembhard got off the ball and then got it back, moseying down the lane with his left before switching to his right and throwing up a lob for Jackson to throw down.
Easy-peasy. Also, for those keeping count, this was Jackson’s sixth made field-goal of the game — more than the prior two games combined.
After Curry threw an air-ball at the other end, Nembhard continued to dominate without dominating the ball — a key distinction, given that the Warriors couldn’t trap a screen if there was no screen. After moving the ball spasmodically around the perimeter, Brissett was eventually deployed as the screener. With Golden State going with the late-clock switch at the top of the zone as opposed to the trap, Nembhard made his third unassisted three of the night and only fifth on the season, as Hield once again cut in front of the ball.
In what was previously triggering 1-2-2 zone from the Warriors, Kuminga answered with a quick-spin move against Buddy Hield, but the change in coverage never fully took shape following the make, with Jackson screening the outside of the top-line, allowing Nembhard to toss in two more points after piercing through the gap.
Following three more empty possessions from the Warriors, Kuminga put the itchy sweater back on, pestering Nembhard the full length of the floor and participating in the attempts to force the ball out of his hands with screen help. Rarely flustered, Nembhard just kept making the right pass, trusting his teammates — as Haliburton often does — to put strain on the defense in 4-on-3 situations, even if all of the shots didn’t fall.
In the end, the free throws that Mathurin earned on a run-out, as well as crashing the glass with Golden State giving up holes in rotation out of the double-coverage, were the only points that Nembhard didn’t have a direct hand in from the point in which his fadeaway jumper put the Pacers ahead, 97-92.
Granted, this isn’t the first time in recent history that a rookie has played big for the Pacers in Golden State. Myles Turner and Joe Young combined for 47 points in a road win over the Warriors in 2016, and Chris Duarte exploded for 27 points a year ago when the Pacers were similarly undermanned. Those three weren’t setting the table for everyone else, though, nor were they being confronted by full-court pressure, traps, and an opponent alternating between man and zone in an expanded role.
Furthermore, in addition to requiring escalating coverage from the same defender that bothered Haliburton in a Kings uniform, Nembhard was simultaneously assigned to Steph Curry, who finished with 12 points in what was his lowest scoring output of the season, while more so impressing with his off-ball positional awareness and ability to defend as part of a collective after switching the initial ball screen.
All of which is to say that, amid a road trip that had seen the Pacers trail by as many as 17 points at every other stop, Nembhard didn’t just best the Warriors during crunch-time in the state where he already downed the Lakers with his game-winner — he also bested himself, providing a steady hand for a short-handed roster.