Sabonis and assertive defense powers Pacers, Nate Bjorkgren to win in season opener
The Pacers opened the 72-game season with a 121-107 victory.
The night began with new head coach Nate Bjorkgren declining to name his starters for opening night at 5:15 p.m. during pregame availability with reporters. One hour later, it was the five players you’d expect in he Pacers’ first meaningful game outside the bubble in 289 days.
After trailing 66-61 at the break, the Pacers elevated their game in the second half. They outscored the New York Knicks, playing their first game under new head coach Tom Thibodeau, 27-16 in the third quarter and held them to 35.7-percent shooting in the second half.
“We knew we could take it to another level defensively,” said Myles Turner, the longest-tenured Pacer. “In that third quarter, I think we came out with more energy and we asserted a lot of our attention to the defensive end and things started to roll our way. We have plenty of offensive talent out there, but once we put our heads together and come together on the defensive end, we’re hard to beat.”
Although there were sweeping changes to the coaching staff, the Pacers returned 14 players who accounted for 98.3 percent of the scoring. It was a group that had high hopes last season and was on track to win over 50 games, but injuries continued to hold them back. Only Justin Holiday played in every game and they were swept in Round 1 by the Miami Heat.
All-Star center Domantas Sabonis, who didn’t play in the bubble due to plantar fasciitis, was the star of the night and played nearly 37 minutes. He was so excited to get the season started that he couldn’t even take his usual pregame nap.
“I’m sad the fans weren’t there,” Sabonis said. “It would have been a lot more fun, more crazy. Our fans are amazing and I just can’t wait for the next one.”
Because of the ongoing pandemic, only select family and friends of players and staff were allowed in to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to see Sabonis pile up a career-best 32 points. (There’s also a limited TV audience due to ongoing contract disputes between the network and providers.)
Of course Sabonis got the season started with a double-double, impactful on the boards (13) and in playing the two-man game with Doug McDermott, who scored 13 points off the bench despite missing all six 3-point tries. That’s a fun, productive duo and was another indication of how badly Sabonis was missed in the bubble.
After the Pacers hoisted 126 3s in three preseason games, an average of 42 per game, they didn’t quite reach that mark in game 1. They went 8 for 34, yet still managed to score 121 points. They averaged 109.4 points per game last season.
Victor Oladipo is still a Pacer and he’s as healthy as he’s been in more than two years. He jumpstarted the Pacers in the second half by scoring 11 of his 22 points to get things started. He’s still too loose with his dribble, but he’s flying around and began to challenge the defense.
“I thought he was very aggressive,” Bjorkgren said of Oladipo. “He was attacking the basket more, coming off screens looking to shoot it more. Victor has been great team player out there.”
They had spent so much time in camp, in 13 practices and three preseason games, focused on the defensive end. So to allow a rebuilding Knicks team to shoot nearly 56 percent in the first half was a surprise.
“We felt like we weren’t ourselves the first half,” Sabonis said. "… I don’t know what it was but we weren’t pressuring the ball how coach wants us to and the second half we wanted to show everybody how we’re going to play.”
They took better care of the ball, with four of their 13 turnovers coming in the second half. They shared it, assisting on 15 of 23 field goals in the second half. And they didn’t allow one transition bucket over the final 24 minutes. Bjorkgren wants to run and it paid dividends, leading to 30 points.
“I think our defense is the reason why we were so successful,” Oladipo said. “I think we gave up 16 points in the third quarter. I think that was huge and we built on that for the rest of the game. We got to realize we’re at our best when we lock in on that end and let that create our offense.”
By 9:28 p.m. ET, team president Kevin Pritchard was waiting on the northeast corner of the floor to offer Bjorkgren a firm handshake in congratulations for win No. 1 as Pacers coach, 121-107.
“We’re all very happy for him and this was an important one to get things going,” Sabonis said.
Before leaving the court, Malcolm Brogdon was sure to grab the game ball and tuck it under his arm. It was a veteran moved by Brogdon, who was steady all night and flirted with a triple-double (21 points, seven rebounds and eight assists).
He then delivered it to Bjorkgren as players celebrated his first win in the locker room. And it’s why Bjorkgren had changed out of his gray quarter-zip and into a navy long sleeve t-shirt. One down, 71 more to go.
Turner’s block party
It’s been a long year for many of us, especially Turner. His dad fought COVID and he had it himself. He was put in trade talks for Gordon Hayward even though it never materialized. And he missed two tune-up games and several practices after being evaluated for a concussion.
But there was no doubt in his mind that he would be ready for the season opener.
“No bro, I’ve been looking forward to this for a minute,” he responded with a big smile. “I’ve been ready for this for a long time.”
That was after he swatted eight shots, which matched his career high and the Knicks’ output. More than ever, he’s the safety net on the floor, the last line of defense.
“My teammates know I’m back there and I got their back,” he said.
Turner, now in his sixth season, has the opportunity to really shine on both ends. He has the green light to shoot, which we need to see more of, and Bjorkgren is pushing the team pressure the ball and be disruptive further out.
“It was amazing,” Oladipo said of Turner’s blocks. “We need Myles to do that at the highest level. He doesn’t know how much that really means and we appreciate him and we need him. Those blocks mean a lot, especially with the ball pressure we’re trying to implement, the way we’re trying to play.”
So while there’s no Turner Block fan section at games for now, there was a block party at The Fieldhouse, hosted by Turner.
Lack of preseason shows for Warren
Plantar fasciitis flared up this month for T.J. Warren, the team’s leading scorer last season who made a name for himself in the bubble. He practiced in the three days leading up to Wednesday’s game, but didn’t have his edge.
Warren was 2 for 8 and finished with five points. He was held to five points or less just five times last season.
After missing his first six shots, he finally saw his first basket go in midway through the third quarter on a transition layup set up by Oladipo.
Warren is a terrific scorer and will be needed, but first he must get healthy for the long haul. And that includes getting into the game shape necessary to play at the pace demanded by Bjorkgren.
The Pacers have won nine of their last 10 games against the Knicks.
Bjorkgren used a nine-man rotation, often staggered Sabonis and Myles Turner and rewarded positive play from McDermott and T.J. McConnell by leaving them on the floor for more minutes.
The Pacers won the rebounding battle (+10) — and they should have considering the weaker opponent and early foul trouble of Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel — and they scored 68 points in the paint, led by Sabonis.
Jeremy Lamb (left ACL rehab), Goga Bitadze (right ankle sprain) and Brian Bowen II (groin tear) were unavailable.
The new public address announcer is Shawn Sullivan, who serves in the same role for Fever games.