'It still feels like home': Pacers-Kings was not an ordinary game, it was a meaningful reunion
Holiday and Lamb never got a proper goodbye, so Wednesday was an emotion-filled game for them, along with Haliburton and Hield.
Both Justin Holiday and Jeremy Lamb remembered the sudden trade that uprooted their lives in February as “crazy.” It all happened so fast and by the end of that day, back on Feb. 8, those two had landed in Sacramento with Domantas Sabonis.
In exchange, the Pacers got Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson. The inclusion of Haliburton, though, was why the Pacers did the deal.
Where to begin? That’s what Lamb’s body language signaled as he leaned back on a courtside chair after just wrapping up shootaround Wednesday morning at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. The memories were racing through his mind as familiarity crept in — with the arena, Pacers staff who stopped in and with reporters.
“It was definitely good having them go through it with me because I’ve been traded by myself before and it’s a lot different,” he said of Sabonis and Holiday. “It was just crazy. We immediately touched down and did physicals and then played the next day. It was a crazy 24 to 48 hours.”
Lamb and Holiday both were members of the team for two and a half seasons, signing with the team in 2019. But it’s different for Holiday, it’s more meaningful.
Because after playing for six other teams, it was the Pacers who signed him to his first multi-year contract. Youngest brother, Aaron, was their first-round selection in 2018 so that helped bring him to Indy in the first place. While the Bulls had offered more money the first time, the Pacers offered them something unique: an opportunity to play together for the first time.
Holiday was the glue guy, the Swiss Army knife who did whatever his coaches and teammates asked of him. He never complained and could always be counted on. He still has never missed a game due to injury.
“When I first walked in, I just felt weird,” Holiday admitted. “… It still feels like home, the place I live. This time I’m just on a different side.”
He was the ultimate teammate, one who bought at house in Indy and stayed here in the offseason to work out daily at 6 a.m. Holiday embraced the city for what it was, including driving the pace car and attending the Indianapolis 500.
As for Lamb, he’ll always remember Indy for being the place where he matured, became a father and fought through the hardest injury of his career. The relationships he created in Indy and trust established with the training staff will always make it special.
“I met a lot of great people, a lot of people helped me so that comes to mind,” he said. “I had my toughest injury here and the training staff was great for me, getting me back to 100 percent and being able to play at a top level again.”
For several weeks leading up to the deadline, Lamb and Holiday were likely to get traded. Caris LeVert went first, as expected. A few interested teams, like the Nets and Warriors, had to be informed that Holiday was not vaccinated (and didn’t plan on getting it) so he could not play in home games. That essentially ruled them out.
Lamb originally thought he was going to be traded, but then his expectation changed closer to the Feb. 10 deadline. That’s why he was thrown off when his agent interrupted a pre-game nap to inform him of the news. And hours later, they were on a charter flight to Sacramento.
This was about 48 hours before the trade deadline and so that’s what changed Lamb’s expectation. “I just felt like no moves was going to be made because it was getting close to the deadline and I didn’t think they would move on from Domas,” he said. “I just figured they would just wait until the summer to make moves.
Lamb was in the final year of his contract and Holiday, who turns 33 next month, is wanting a contract extension. Neither fit the Pacers’ updated timeline once team officials finally retooled the roster. The timeline and hope for the group of the past few years had expired, and they finally pulled the trigger on three moves to advance the team forward.
A deal with the Kings quietly was discussed, and had to involve Sabonis to get a player with the talent and upside of Haliburton. I was told that both owners got involved and made sure it got done. No draft picks were involved in this six-player deal.
“Getting traded is always hard,” said Holiday, who grew up near Los Angeles. “I was surprised, I didn’t know until it happened. I also didn’t know this would be a destination that I would go to as well.
“It was crazy because we played that first game literally right after we got done with everything — so the first game I was not even all there (mentally). My dad is from Santa Rosa, (California) so I have hundreds of family that are near Sacramento or in Sacramento. It was just like a weird feeling.”
Sabonis, a two-time All-Star with the Pacers, suffered a bruised left knee on Sunday so he did not join the Kings on this five-game road trip. He stayed back to get healthy and like Lamb, has a newborn child. Except for Sabonis and his wife, Shashana, it was their first.
“I told him I was disappointed he couldn’t return,” Holiday said with a big grin. “How much he was here for this … but next time when he comes it’ll be even bigger. But I wish he could be here with me and Jeremy to come back and hit this together — just like we got traded together.”
On Tuesday, the day before the Pacers lost to the Kings 110-109, looking ahead to facing their former team was the primary topic discussed at Pacers practice. Hield referred to it as “just another game” several times — but that’s simply not the case.
Not for these two who felt disrespected and surprised by the move. And not when it’s the first matchup. Haliburton, especially, is young but invested in the team and the Sacramento community. His mom and siblings moved out there to be with him as he embraced being the face of the team. But that only lasted a little more than a season.
When trades occur or coaches are fired, what’s not often discussed are those directly impacted. That’s the human side of it, beyond the basketball and business side.
“A lot of my family is out here for the game,” Haliburton said. “A lot of friends and family I think are behind the narrative more than the game, but it’s just basketball at the end of the day.”
He remains in frequent contact with several players and coaches, but he’s also moved on. But he did so with an appreciation for where his career started and how he was treated.
“I think the fan base in Sacramento really showed me a lot of love throughout my year and a half there so I think when I go there, there will be a little bit more emotions,” he acknowledged.
More than anyone else involved in the deal, Hield was grateful for a fresh start. He was downplaying his excitement to be out of the Kings organization — where he had been since 2017, traded midseason during his rookie campaign — and empowered by his new team.
“I refound my joy again so it’s fun,” he said. But he hasn't been able to settle in just yet. That will come in the offseason. “I’m a guy who’s going to adjust to whatever, it’s just basketball and I love to play. Actually, I’m always here all the time in the gym. It’s my happy place.”
Before the game, there were plenty of hugs and handshakes everywhere. Kings coach Alvin Gentry talked with Haliburton for more than 15 minutes on the court.
“He’s one of those guys that everybody just gravitates to,” Gentry said of the new face of the Pacers. “… He’s going to be a terrific player. And he’s a terrific young man.”
Ten minutes before his own pre-game media availability, Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle did something I haven’t seen him do all season. He went onto the court to find his former players. Lamb wasn’t out yet, but he was able to give Holiday a hug and catch up for about five minutes.
Holiday, who didn’t take the bus and instead choose to drive his sports car to The Fieldhouse, wasn’t sure what to expect. He played almost three seasons in Indy and never got closure because of the abruptness of the trade. It happened when they were on the road in Atlanta. Also, his youngest child was born here and he even kept his home — which he invested significant time and money into last offseason with renovations.
“I don’t know, man,” Holiday said beforehand, clearly filled with anxiousness. “I’ve been trying to think about it. I’m just going to let it go. I think it’s gonna be fun. It’s a place I’m comfortable playing so hopefully it’s fun, we play well and it’ll be good to see the fans because they all showed me so much love when I was here. I think it’ll be a good experience, I just don’t know exactly if I’m going to be overexcited. I hope I’m calm, but I might be overly excited.”
Holiday admits that he was all over the place for the first month or two, but now he’s starting to settle in with the Kings.
As the teams lined up for the national anthem, the Pacers’ game operations crew shifted gears. A two-minute tribute video was played to recognize the three players now with the Kings. This organization never did stuff like that until this year — and it began earlier in the season when they played a video for LeVert. But that was during an in-game timeout.
This game was meaningful in the big picture, seeing as how both teams are competing for better odds in the draft lottery.
The Pacers led by three with 68 seconds left and were up one, with the ball, as the clock showed 18.7 seconds. The ball was inbounded and Hield simply lost it out of bounds in the backcourt.
“I was looking ahead and trying to beat my guy and just lost the ball,” Hield said. “A tough game.”
Then, the Pacers’ defensive woes continued as they allowed a rebound putback by the Kings’ Damian Jones to hand over the win.
“It’s stuff we can learn from as a young team,” Carlisle said afterward. “We’ll get better from it. In that case, we’ve got to space the floor better so we can advance the ball over half court. They trapped, which we expected, but we’ve got to do a better job of ball security there.”
The missed boxout was costly, and Haliburton was just as guilty. It didn’t help that Goga Bitadze was on the bench and they didn’t have a center, anyone over 6-foot-5, on the floor.
“The guy always plays with joy, he always plays the right way,” Carlisle said of Haliburton. “He’s a total energy giver. I can’t wait to see him play with our full complement of players.”
The former Kings can say it was just another game, but we know otherwise. Haliburton’s postgame body language, especially, said it all. He was frustrated, pissed about the loss and didn’t have much to say, so he gave unusually short answers.
Meanwhile, Hield shared that they caught up with some of their former teammates and coaches the night before over dinner. But that’s in the past and he’s thrilled to move forward. This closure was needed for everyone.
“It was time for a change in scenery,” Hield made abundantly clear. “Those guys are still my friends, we went through war together. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish but changes definitely needed to happen.”