Chris Duarte's breakthrough: On shooting his way out of a slump and the teammate who was by his side
Duarte shot 18% from outside in his first 13 games back from injury. Knocking down four 3s and scoring 25 points against Memphis was just what he needed.
Chris Duarte was trying to get a rebound when Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. fell into him after a failed transition alley-oop from Ja Morant.
Duarte felt it right away. He first tried shaking his left hand after a couple fingers absorbed the blow, which sent waves of pain and emotions throughout his body.
He asked out and headed straight to the north east corner of The Fieldhouse toward the locker room. But first, he got a good slap in — striking the chair at the end of the bench where associate head athletic trainer Carl Eaton sits.
The emotion that poured out wasn’t just from that play, it was from everything he had experienced for the past two-plus months.
It was landing on Miami guard Kyle Lowry’s foot back on Nov. 4, one game after he erupted for a career-high 30 points, including five 3s, in a game at Brooklyn. It was the six weeks he spent away from basketball, rehabbing his way back from a bad ankle sprain.
On this night against the Grizzlies on Saturday, Duarte was finally starting to feel like himself again. He was 3 for 5 from the field, including 2 for 3 from distance, and he made all four free throw attempts. He had scored 12 points in 10 minutes … and then this happened.
“It’s frustration,” he said of taking his emotions out on the chair. “I don’t know what it is this year, but every time I have it going, every time I feel good, something happens. Today, I was out there doing good and stuff happens.”
We all saw what Duarte was going through, but there’s no way to really know what it’s like. In his return from the ankle sprain, Duarte struggled — shooting 7 for 39 (18%) from 3-point range over the next 13 games. He went nine games without a 3-point field goal, including a stretch of six games in a row, from Dec. 29 to Jan. 8.
He even had three scoreless games.
It was truly stunning to see.
Duarte made 37% of 3s in his rookie season and some of these tries weren’t even close. I’d watch him after practice and in warmups, 45 minutes before games, going against assistant coach for player development Jannero Pargo. Duarte would even miss uncontested layups.
He was in a tough spot. He needed to see the ball go in. In a game, when it mattered.
And finally, that happened against the Grizzlies.
But then he got hurt.
However, it didn’t keep him out of the second half.
Duarte was one of the first Pacers to return to the court for halftime shooting. The athletic trainer had wrapped his left middle and ring fingers with black tape, so that was something he had to get used to.
But at least he could play and keep shooting.
“Chris Duarte’s night tonight was significant,” head coach Rick Carlisle said after the game. “You sit out for a month and a half with an ankle, coming back into it is not simple to step back in and start making shots. He’s stayed in the fight and tonight, all that stuff bore some fruit.”
While sidelined and after returning, Duarte kept reminding himself that he’s a fighter, he’s a warrior and that this would pass.
He was returning to the practice facility at night on his own to get more shots up, to stay at it, doing what shooters know to do: keep shooting.
As always, there’s a mental aspect to all of this.
Consider how while Duarte was unable to contribute on the court, attention continued to pile up for rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard. Buddy Hield was/is consistently making at least four 3s per game, Aaron Nesmith has shined bright with this fresh opportunity in Indy where Tyrese Haliburton is the face of the team.
It’s easy to wonder — where exactly does Duarte fit?
That’s where teammates come in. And no one was better to him than backcourt mate T.J. McConnell.