Myles Turner threw up a block party. Alize Johnson ran the show. Edmond Summer dropped the dimes while JaKarr Sampson showed why he was more than a bench player.
The Indiana Pacers gained the right impetus heading into the upcoming National Basketball Association season as they completed a double over Sacramento Kings on Saturday, wrapping up the first-ever NBA pre-season games in India on a winning note. The final game was a stark contrast to the opening one that witnessed more rotations and lower intensity levels. In a first, coaches also argued referees’ calls – a new rule that will be implemented during the upcoming edition of the NBA.
While the Pacers rallied in the opener to dramatically overcome a 21-point deficit and win 132-131 in overtime, a comprehensive margin of victory on Saturday showcased the strength in depth they had on offer. Eight Indiana players recorded double-digits figures, five among them being from the reserves as Alize Johnson top-scored with 17 points.
Marvin Bagley III set the tempo of the evening for the Kings, racking up 10 points in the first quarter itself, ably supported by De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield – supplying three assists apiece – as Luke Walton’s side held a slender 30-25 lead in the opening quarter.
But they were guilty of letting Pacers off the hook in the second quarter, where their opponents scooped 46 points. Bench players Sampson and Sumner combined well as the Pacers out-muscled Kings in the paint, outscoring their opponents 60-28 on the interior.
Kings coach Walton raised concerns about their fragile defence heading into the season that kick-starts on October 22.
“Our top priority is defense and we’ve talked about it a lot. We showed some nice moments of defense but I thought tonight it got away from us,” Walton said at the post-match press conference.
“We weren’t nearly as aggressive as we need to be. Indiana was doing a really nice job of penetrating our defense and kicking to shooters and making us pay for not stopping the ball, so that’s our top priority right now. We’ve got a lot of talent on our team. We can score the ball with the best of them, but we know as a group, if we want to win consistently, we’ve got to get better on defense,” the former Los Angeles Lakers coach added.
As much as Buddy Hield and reserve player Yogi Ferrell’s made endless attempts to revive the Kings, the final burst was all about Johnson, the power forward picking 11 out of the 17 points Pacers scored in the fourth quarter. Before they could realise, it was all but over for the Kings.
“Winning is not the most important thing but we relatively wanted to test our new guys,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said at the post-match presser.
“We have seven new players on our roster. Both of teams left a lot of themselves in the game last night, they were a little stiff and tired tonight. But it was a good opportunity to get all of our guys some minutes and this is something we can build on going back,” he claimed.
Filling Oladipo’s void
McMillan billed the pre-season games all about bonding and chemistry for his team. But the bigger question surrounding the Pacers was whether they could make up for the absence of the injured Victor Oladipo, who suffered a ruptured knee tendon during the business end of last season. He had recorded 18.8 points per game and with an assist rate of 5.2, the second-highest in the team.
However, they failed to scrape past the first round of the Eastern Conference playoff stages for the fourth consecutive year despite registering a total of 48 wins during the 2018-’19 NBA season.
Oladipo is likely to miss a good chunk of the upcoming season as well and is expected to return around December.
“I’m sure he [Oladipo] is watching. I know he’s working hard to get back and there’s no time frame over when he will be back but we have to focus on the guys we have here. Injuries are part of the game that we train and condition our guys to be ready to play,” McMillan had responded earlier when asked about Oladipo’s absence.
“Last year, when he went down, our guys stepped up and we continued to win games and finish the season strong. Going into our preparation for the season, we know that Victor is not going to be a part at the start of the season so the focus will be on the guys that are playing to create that winning culture and that connection,” he said.
With no timetable set on Oladipo’s return, qualifying for the playoffs again may pose a big challenge for the Pacers. But if their all-round team display on Saturday was anything to go by, they definitely have a chance.