The NBA returned to action last night for its 75th anniversary season, and for the first two quarters in Charlotte it was a joy to have the Indiana Pacers back on our screens.
The Blue and Gold were up 75-59 at the half in the Spectrum Center against the Hornets and looking comfortable. They had cleverly run their offense through two-time all-star Domantas Sabonis, who scored 22 first-half points. His size and strength in the paint was too much for one of Charlotte’s newest players Mason Plumlee as he bulldozed his way time and time again to the rim. Rookie Chris Duarte impressed with his shooting on what was his NBA debut, which included a buzzer-beating three at the end of the first quarter.
Defensively it was working in the Pacers favour as well. Myles Turner had got himself a couple of blocks and the team were forcing turnovers and getting defensive rebounds. Charlotte only mustered one meaningful run in the entire half midway through the second quarter. Reigning NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and Ish Smith off the bench looked dangerous as they brought the home team to within 5 points of Indiana’s lead, but that’s pretty much as close as they could get.
Then came the third quarter…
Around four minutes into the third period the Blue and Gold had a lead of 23 at 84-62. At this point let me remind some of you that during the pre-season Charlotte lost to the Dallas Mavericks 127-59 at Spectrum Center. That’s right – not only did they only score 59 points in 48 minutes of basketball but they were also blown out of the water on their home court.
Obviously at this point they had scored more than they totalled just over a week ago and there was no way they would give up during a regular season game like they seemingly did during the pre-season. However, I still think most were expecting Indiana to go on and manage the game until the final buzzer – a happy winning second debut for returning head coach Rick Carlisle.
But what happened next stunned everyone.
A 24-0 run by the Hornets- spearheaded by Ball – stung the Pacers into disbelief. All of a sudden their offense went to pot, and Charlotte very quickly swarmed over the Indiana backcourt and made bucket after bucket. Over the course of six very gruelling minutes, that 84-62 lead quickly became an 85-84 deficit.
Eventually Indiana found some offense – going on a 14-3 run themselves to get right back into the game, but ultimately a seesaw fourth quarter felt like it could go either way. Torrey Craig, another new Pacer, sunk both his free throws with 12 seconds to go to make it 122-121 to Indiana before PJ Washington returned the favour to restore Charlotte’s lead 123-122. Sabonis was the man Carlisle set his final play around but the centre couldn’t get a clean shot away as the Hornets completed their come from behind win. Victory for Charlotte avenges the play-in defeat the Pacers inflicted on them last season and three regular season wins in their last four matchups with the Blue and Gold.
Ultimately the team switched off for six minutes and that is what cost them the game. The third quarter collapse was the sort of capitulation that makes players, coaches and fans tear their hair out – if you are 20 or 30 games into a season.
Could Carlisle have used a timeout earlier to try and break the momentum shift? Perhaps he would have if we were in late January. But this is game one of the new season, with another new coaching staff and some new faces joining the team roster. It will take some time to figure out the right rotations, the right personnel to team up on the court – just like with Nate Bjorkgren last year. Obviously last year the Pacers went 3-0 to start the season but even though they had those wins they were still working out the kind of team they wanted to be – and further down the line the problems began to appear.
This will be a learning curve for Carlisle and for the team. To say the team played poorly is harsh. Sabonis ended the night with a 33-point, 15 rebound double-double. Malcolm Brogdon, fresh off signing a new multi-year contract extension earlier in the week, also recorded a double double (28 points, 11 assists). Rookie Duarte ended with 27 points including six three-point field goals, both of which are Pacer franchise records for any rookie in their first game. Turner finished with four blocks to get his campaign for Defensive Player of the Year off to a solid start.
Indiana are also still without two of their offensive weapons in TJ Warren and Caris LeVert, the latter hoping to join up with the team in the next week or two after being ruled out for the first four games of the season with a lower back injury. This again probably means once they are fit there will be an adjustment period to get them both in the rotation.
Next up is a trip to DC to face Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards tomorrow night, where they will need to be focused for the full 48 minutes to try and get their first win on the board.