A four-plus month layoff. The starting point guard out. The only starting big in major foul trouble early. It was a typical night at the office for the Indiana Pacers in their first game Saturday as their season restarted at the bubble in Orlando.
They pulled out the 127-121 victory against the Philadelphia 76ers to win the season series and get the upper hand in race for Eastern Conference seeding. T.J. Warren set a career-high with 53 points on 20-of-29 shooting, including 9-of-12 from 3-point range. His season-high was 36. His previous career-high was 40 with the Phoenix Suns. Only Reggie Miller (57) and Jermaine O’Neal (55) have scored more in an NBA game for the Pacers.
“It was a special game,” Warren said. “Locked in. Laser-focused throughout the whole game. My teammates did a great job of feeding me the ball and being myself out there. Doing what I do best. Put the ball in the basket.”
Malcolm Brogdon (neck) missed his 18th game as coach Nate McMillan had to roll out a starting lineup he’d never used before. Aaron Holiday, Victor Oladipo, Warren, Justin Holiday and Myles Turner played together twice during the season for less than a minute.
“Malcolm had an injury in our last (scrimmage) against the Spurs. Got hit across his neck,” McMillan said before tip-off. “His neck stiffened up the last two days. He tried to go through shootaround this morning and just couldn’t turn and didn’t feel he was able to play tonight.”
For at least one game, that didn’t matter.
The Pacers (40-26) were forced to used a lineup they’d never anticipated after three scrimmages. And they overcame the tremendous size advantage of Philadelphia, which was led by Joel Embiid (41 points, 21 rebounds), Tobias Harris (30 points, eight rebounds) and Ben Simmons (19 points, 13 rebounds).
Trailing 98-88 with 8:38 to play, the Pacers came back. Turner (nine points) came alive with some clutch buckets, as did Aaron Holiday (15 points, 10 assists), Oladipo (15 points), T.J. McConnell (10 points, eight assists), Doug McDermott (10 points) and, of course, Warren.
“We just had to make it difficult for them. T.J. Warren was hot,” Oladipo said. “Our bench was phenomenal. Guys did little things. At the end of the day, we fed the dragon. Everybody else did what they had to do for our team to win.”
The Pacers played quicker early, disrupting entry passes in the post to Simmons and Al Horford by helping the undersized Justin Holiday and McDermott. The deflections led to Indiana getting out in transition and attempting 13 more shots in the first half en route to 61-55 lead. The Sixers played without a true point guard at times with Simmons at power forward on offense and had 14 turnovers. They began to wear the Pacers down with their size in the second half, but they couldn’t sustain.
The Sixers were 9-of-25 on 3s, but the Pacers finished 14-of-34. That helped negate Philadelphia’s 55-34 edge in rebounds. Warren knocked down the dagger 3 with a three-point lead in the waning seconds to make it a two-possession game. The Sixers didn’t send extra defenders at him or attempt to trap the ball out of his hands.
Oladipo filled in the gaps around Warren’s offensive outburst. His help defense was key, but he attacked the rim late in the first half to get to the foul line and knocked down a deep 3 late in the shot clock. The Pacers used a lot of zone in the second half to help slow down Philadelphia, which played more in the half court. Oladipo didn’t allow himself to get wrapped up in trying to prove anything. He knew it was Warren’s game to shine and took a back seat.
“He was making all kind of 3s,” McMillan said of Warren. “Off the dribble, spot-up 3s, running pick-and-roll, he has worked on it. He’s getting those opportunities. It started for him in Phoenix, but I figured it would be something we needed from him if we were able to restart this season. … We need that 3 man to spread the floor and knock down 3s.”