The Indiana Pacers won their season opener 121-107 over the New York Knicks Wednesday night, giving all of Pacer Nation a Christmas present to savor while simultaneously reinforcing just how wonderful it is that Nate McMillan is not the coach anymore.
The team was behind at halftime. They pulled it together in the third quarter, gave up just 16 points while scoring 27, and took control of the game.
What’s more, the team was up nine points with seven minutes to play and, unlike during the McMillan years, there was not the imminent sense of doom that accompanies clock-watching and a “please, just let the clock tick down to zero before the team chokes” attitude from fans.
Instead, the team played all the way to the buzzer and won by 14, putting together a 14-3 run to stretch a 97-90 score with 8:41 to play to a 111-93 count just under four minutes later. The Knicks never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way, and that was with under a minute and a half left, not at a time when it looked in any real way like Indiana was going to give the game away.
In other words, the precise polar opposite of a McMillan-coached team.
What’s more, a look at the box score and the shot chart (sadly, “0-3AR”, or zero-to-three-foot attempt rate, isn’t an official box score stat yet) revealed some truly astounding D’Antoni Index stats that could’ve been coached into the team by MDA himself.
The Pacers shot 34 3-pointers out of their 94 attempts. Ordinarily, a .362 3PAR is nothing to write home about—better than the team’s mark in previous years, sure, but not exactly bombs away.
But here’s the thing. The team attempted 41 shots from inside the restricted area. That’s the “layups” part of “threes and layups”, and shooting 43.6 percent of overall shots from that close is outstanding.
Throw in a .309 FTR (29 FTA, of which Indiana made 21) and you’ve got a raw D’Antoni Index of 1.107.
Last year’s Rockets clocked in at 1.086.
Now, granted, merely putting up a big D’Antoni Index doesn’t necessarily mean anything by itself—the Pacers made just eight of those 34 attempts, for a woeful .353 eFG%—but again, the team attacked the basket, got a ton of good looks in close, and hit 63.3 percent of their two-point shots because over two-thirds of their 60 2-pointers were from the most efficient spot on the floor right under the net.
And again, they nailed 21 free throws, and that wasn’t even spectacular in its own right—you’ve got to expect that the team will shoot better than 72.4 percent for the season.
This is the absolute best-case scenario for a Nate Bjorkgren-coached team. The guy gets his first chance to run an offense and puts up a statistical measure of shot quality (essentially, the higher the D’Antoni Index, the better a team has maximized the potential efficiency of a possession and put itself in a position to win—that’s the point of the stat) that’s even better than the coach the stat is named after did for a whole season.
And oh, the defense. Besides the obvious efficiency of the 101.0 Defensive Rating on display in the actual game (which was played at a 106.0 pace because apparently the NBA wants to play at a pace that would blow the doors off even the rapid-fire 1980s), it was the way the defense was ready to play ball.
Myles Turner had eight blocks. Bjorkgren appears to have unlocked Turner’s rim protection ability and designed a system that lets him make the best use of his strengths at that end of the floor.
Domantas Sabonis had 13 rebounds to go with his 32 points on offense, and the Pacers out-rebounded the Knicks 50-40 while only allowing five offensive rebounds.
For fans used to seeing the terrible defensive positioning that plagued McMillan’s system and seeing many a defensive stop thwarted by a putback thanks to an out-of-position defender, seeing the Pacers win a rebounding battle decisively to start the season is a fantastic sign.
Meanwhile, the Knicks couldn’t attack the basket for good looks in close, couldn’t get good looks from long range consistently (they managed just a .329 3PAR even though they hit 42.9 percent of the shots), and couldn’t fight their way to the line against the Pacers’ starters (the Knicks’ starters attempted only eight combined free throws—the remaining 15 were all by the bench guys.)
Obi Toppin‘s NBA debut saw him with nine points on 12 shots. He was 0-of-5 on two-pointers, unable to do anything with any look that wasn’t set up for him beyond the arc, all thanks to the Pacers’ defense giving him a rude welcome to the NBA.
None of New York’s starters managed better than a 15.1 total rebound rate; Sabonis was at 18.8 and even Turner, normally a very poor rebounder in the context of advanced rebounding stats, hit 14.7 on that scale.
And Victor Oladipo? He’s back. Like, for real he is BACK, hitting 9-of-14 shots for 22 points and turning the ball over only once.
Bjorkgren kept rotations short—only nine guys played—and it remains to be seen if he’s going to have a better conceptual understanding of “garbage time” than McMillan did in order to avoid running the rotation guys into the ground.
But at the same time, only two guys—Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon—even played 30 minutes (Sabonis played 36, Brogdon 34; the 240 available minutes were so well distributed that Aaron Holiday and his 17 minutes were the fewest on the squad.)
As a basketball fan and a national-media guy who’s watched the craft of coaching practiced well by a lot of teams I don’t root for, seeing my beloved Pacers finally have a coach with a fantastic grasp of the principles of modern basketball brings me nothing but joy.
See you in the Finals, LeBron. We’re coming for you.