Led by T.J. McConnell, Bennedict Mathurin, short-handed Pacers steal road win

Dustin Dopirak
Indianapolis Star
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SACRAMENTO -- Despite missing three starters, plus the All-NBA wing who is about to join them, the Pacers survived a late full-court-press onslaught to steal a win on the road over the Kings 126-121 Thursday night at the Golden 1 Center.

The Pacers improved to 24-17 after losing their previous two games and sit in a tie for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Kings fell to 23-18 and are seventh in the West.

Here are four observations.

Short-handed Pacers keep up with Kings by attacking paint

Thanks to the combination of injuries and the recent trade that sent Bruce Brown and Jordan Nwora to the Raptors and brought Pascal Siakam to the Pacers, Indiana was severely undermanned Thursday. All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton is still out with his strained hamstring. Forward Aaron Nesmith missed his third straight game with lower leg issues, and guard Andrew Nembhard was ruled out about a half-hour before tipoff with a back sprain. Siakam hasn't joined the team yet, Brown and Nwora are already gone and the Pacers released James Johnson to make roster numbers work. The Pacers went into the game with 11 players, including two-way players Kendall Brown and Oscar Tshiebwe, who have spent most of this season with the Mad Ants in the G League.

But rather than just accept a road defeat against a playoff team, the remaining Pacers went into attack mode. They didn't slow their tempo and went at the rim as much as possible.

Point guard T.J. McConnell scored 20 points and fellow downhill threat Bennedict Mathurin scored 25 on 11 of 21 shooting . Forwards Jalen Smith and Obi Toppin and center Myles Turner benefitted from drive-and-dish opportunities, as well as post-ups. Smith scored 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting. Toppin scored 10 and Turner had 18 on 6 of 12 shooting. The Pacers finished with a remarkable 62 points in the paint and shot 55.1% (49 of 89) from the floor. Of their 89 field goal attempts, 47 came in the paint and they made 31 of those. The drives opened up 3-point opportunities and the Pacers were 13-of-33 from deep. The Pacers posted 1.18 points per possession.

"It makes the defense have to make a decision," Turner said of the downhill drives. "If they're going to veer off and guard me or any 5s rolling or try to stay with T.J. He's so fast and dynamic that it's a tall task for anybody."

Said Mathurin: "It was a big part of the game. T.J. can get al the way to the rim and that creates a lot of attention. We were pretty efficient because we were able to have 1 through 5 going all the way to the rim. It was great to apply pressure."

The Pacers also defended well before collapsing against full-court pressure late. They held the Kings to 1.17 points per possession.

T.J. McConnell was relentless in relief

With Haliburton and Nembhard both out, the Pacers were down to their third point guard, but that doesn't bother them much, of course, because that's McConnell.

The 31-year-old ninth-year veteran brought his typical relentless energy to the assignment, and it was as remarkably effective as it always seems to be. The 6-1, 190-pounder incessantly attacked the paint, and regardless of how big of defenders the Kings had on him, he got to the rim anyway and usually finished layups. And of course, he was every bit as pesky as usual on defense and caused problems for Kings All-Star point guard De'Aaron Fox.

In the first half, McConnell scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting with five assists and a steal against one turnover. He finished with 20 on 9-of-14 shooting and 10 assists. He got to the 20-point mark before Mathurin, so he was actually the first Pacers player to score 20 points in a game that Haliburton has missed since his injury on Jan. 8.

McConnell also helped hold Fox to 11 on 3-of-8 shooting with zero assists and a turnover in the first half, and 24 points on 8-of-20 shooting in the game.

"He's one of the great backup point guards I've ever seen in this league," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "He has a compete level that is very unique. ... He is a defiant competitor and he's a big part of what we're doing here.

'Backup point guard' Buddy Hield dishes out eight assists

The Pacers didn't have much in the way of backup for McConnell. So they relied on Buddy Hield, who started at shooting guard in an arena where he was being relentlessly booed.

Hield, of course, came to the Pacers in the trade that brought Haliburton to Indiana. Haliburton is remembered fondly. Hield, less so. He was booed relentlessly last year. This year he saw it coming, and in his introduction, he blew kisses to the fans and drank in the boos.

He struggled to shoot the ball and missed his first four 3-pointers. However, he hit the next two, and more importantly did excellent work moving the ball.

Hield finished with eight assists against just two turnovers and paired that with his 12 points, which included two key free throws late. He also grabbed six rebounds.

"I wanted to be aggressive coming out early, but I felt like I was getting guys easy touches and moving the ball and let the game come to me," Hield said. "I had some good looks that didn't go down. I knocked down two in the third quarter, but it was fun. It was fun to come out here and adapt. I played a lot of point in preseason, so it wasn't an 'oh (expletive)' moment for me. I came in here and competed."

Pacers rookies make key contributions

All of the injuries and absences meant the Pacers had to dig deep into their bench, and that meant rookies Ben Sheppard and Jarace Walker saw critical minutes. Both were up to the task, and Carlisle mentioned their contributions first when he entered his press conference.

"The first thing of note is how Walker and Sheppard played in this game," Carlisle said. "They played like veterans. They played smart, tough, aggressive. This environment got wild and crazy. They kept poised, remained aggressive, and made key play after key play. Hats off to them. They worked very hard. They put in some tough hours in the G League, some tough travel, etc., and tonight it really paid off. Those guys are are respected in the locker room, but the level of respect rose really to another level tonight after this game."

Sheppard has played in just 19 of the Pacers' 41 games and Walker has scored in just 14. Most of those appearances have come in games that were blowouts one way or the other. Even the games in which they checked in earlier than the fourth quarter mostly became blowouts eventually. And as Carlisle mentioned, the Pacers have sent both down to the G League to get reps. But they stuck with it and had their most important performances of the season on Thursday night.

Sheppard hit the Pacers' first two 3-pointers of the game and he was even more effective on the defensive end. He took on some of the Kings' top perimeter players when he was on the floor, including Kevin Huerter and did solid work. He finished with seven points on 2-of-5 shooting, but also had four rebounds, two assists and two steals.

"Shep came in and played outstanding defense," Turner said. "Obviously he hit some shots and made some plays but I was more impressed with his defense and how he was moving around. That was good stuff."

Walker struggled early and was 1-of-5 from 3-point range in the first half, but he caught fire from outside in the second half. He finished with 15 points on 6-of-13 shooting.

"I was just missing some good looks and they fell in the second half," Walker said. "I was just continuing to trust my work."

Pacers stats vs. Kings

INDIANA (126): Hield 4-9 2-2 12, Smith 6-7 4-4 17, Turner 6-12 5-7 18, Mathurin 11-21 1-1 25, McConnell 9-14 2-3 20, Jackson 1-2 0-0 2, Toppin 4-6 0-0 10, Walker 6-13 0-0 15, Sheppard 2-5 1-2 7. Totals 49-89 15-19 126.

SACRAMENTO (121): Barnes 1-2 0-0 2, Murray 11-18 4-5 27, Sabonis 8-13 5-8 21, Fox 8-20 5-9 24, Huerter 11-17 2-2 31, Lyles 0-2 0-0 0, Vezenkov 2-3 1-2 7, Len 0-1 0-0 0, Ellis 0-0 0-0 0, Monk 3-9 1-6 9. Totals 44-85 18-32 121.


3-Point Goals—Indiana 13-33 (Walker 3-8, Sheppard 2-3, Toppin 2-4, Hield 2-6, Mathurin 2-6, Smith 1-2, Turner 1-4), Sacramento 15-38 (Huerter 7-12, Fox 3-8, Vezenkov 2-3, Monk 2-6, Murray 1-5, Barnes 0-1, Sabonis 0-1, Lyles 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Indiana 35 (Smith 13), Sacramento 37 (Sabonis 11). Assists_Indiana 33 (McConnell 10), Sacramento 27 (Sabonis 10). Total Fouls_Indiana 20, Sacramento 20. A_17,832 (17,608)

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