'He’s willing to do whatever it takes': Heart of the team Domantas Sabonis leads Pacers to 3-0 start
Pacers continue to win with their All-Star back from injury — and producing.
Rookie contract no more, Domantas Sabonis is already earning every bit of the contract extension worth $79.4 million he signed just over a year ago.
Double-doubles are automatic for 24-year-old center, 3 for 3 to begin the season. Here’s what he also did in the first three games.
He piled up a career-high 32 points in Pacers’ season-opening win over the Knicks.
He posted a triple-double in Chicago on Saturday night.
And by Sunday, he sank the game-winner to defeat the Celtics.
As a result of his play and helping lead the Pacers to a 3-0 start, one of just five undefeated teams after Week 1, Sabonis was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday.
This team goes as Sabonis, who is uber-dependable, goes.
Just consider where this team was six months ago, playing in the bubble but without a full lineup intact. Sabonis didn’t play, instead returning to Los Angeles for treatment on left foot plantar fasciitis.
“I feel great,” Sabonis said at the start of the month entering the shortened training camp. “My body feels good. Just getting in shape. Everybody came in, we’re all working with the new coach and it’s been great.”
When games mattered most last August, Sabonis wasn’t healthy enough to return and the Pacers were swept for the third time in four seasons. He’s the heart of the team and it hasn’t taken long for new head coach Nate Bjorkgren to see that for himself.
“Very competitive,” Bjorkgren said. “Very fiery. Wants to win extremely bad and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to do that. He’s got a lot of fire, plays with good emotion, but he’s patient as well. Knows when to be patient down there on the block. I keep saying he’s such a great teammate the way he sets screens.”
Sabonis is now in his fourth season with the Pacers. He’s the player Ryan Carr, the Pacers’ VP of Player Personnel, was pushing for in the draft room in 2016. One year later, the team acquired him, along with Victor Oladipo, for Paul George in their most significant roster move of the decade.
Sabonis is now averaging 24.3 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists per game and shooting almost four 3-pointers per game. That’s one area where his game is evolving. Of course he’ll have success on the block, using his crafty footwork and maneuverability to score on opposing bigs, but adding a 3-point shot has been an emphasis for the past two offseasons.
Only now Bjorkgren is his coach and he’s encouraging Sabonis (and others) to take it. More 3s and layups, less midrange — unless you’re T.J. Warren.
“Coach is giving us a lot of freedom to make decisions,” Sabonis said. “He’s letting me sometimes bring up the ball or find guys open and he’s really trusting us to shoot more 3s and do stuff that I’m not used to. It’s good having his back to explore our skills.”
The first thing Bjorkgren did when he was hired in late October was fly to LA to meet with Sabonis. They had dinner and he watched Sabonis go through a couple workouts.
Perhaps no teammate was impacted more by his absence than Doug McDermott, who has reached double figures in all three games. They are two smart players who operate on the same wavelength. They have their traditional dribble hand-offs, but also instinctively work together to counter the defense.
“It’s huge, man,” McDermott said of having Sabonis out there. “He just really knows how to play. He’s like a point-forward out there and always seems to make the right play. He’s an awesome guy to be able to have out there with the way he can score on the low block, but also be unselfish and get us all involved.
“For a shooter and a guy who likes to move without the ball, it’s a dream to play with a guy like that. And it doesn’t hurt that he probably sets the best screens in the league, too. “He’s the best, I really enjoy playing with him.”
See also: Oladipo sits out back-to-back due to knee injury management
With the game on the line Sunday against the Celtics, Bjorkgren kept calling for Sabonis to go to work. Sabonis missed a layup with 49 seconds left, then earned a trip to the free throw line 20 seconds later. And when Bjorkgren called a timeout with 11.8 seconds left and trailing by one, he drew up a new play to capitalize off Sabonis’ strength.
Justin Holiday played it in to Sabonis, who faked the hand-off and dribbled to the basket on his dominant left side.
“To be honest with you, I knew that he was going to get a bucket,” Holiday said afterward.
Sabonis beat the defense and finished the layup through contact, fouled by Robert Williams, and the Pacers won 108-107.
“We’ve been practicing that play in training camp and coach trusts me with the ball in my hands with the last possession,” Sabonis said. “It’s awesome having that feeling from coach. He tries to make us better, makes us do things we’re not used to.”
Just three games in, there’s been a lot to like about the Pacers and many individual performances. It’s their first 3-0 start since the special 2013-14 season. The early returns of Sabonis returning from injury and Bjorkgren taking over has rejuvenated this group and given fans (at those who can watch watch on TV) a reason for optimism this season after a winless preseason.
“Coach knows how to use us all,” Sabonis continued. “He’s trying to put us all in the right positions. It’s only game 3 of the season, we got so much more to learn. So far, guys are happy, guys are playing good and especially confident, and that’s the most important thing.”
The Pacers will follow the beat of their heart — and there’s no doubt that’s Sabonis.
Miss your writing over at The Athletic Scott. Thanks for being the eyes and ears for the Pacers!