Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner showed the Pacers they can win in the clutch

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 14: Domantas Sabonis #11 and Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers react after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 14, 2019 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 14: Domantas Sabonis #11 and Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers react after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 14, 2019 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Indiana Pacers saw perhaps the most important minutes of the Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner pairing as they rallied to beat Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Thursday night was a good night at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. In case you’re living under a rock, The Indiana Pacers avoided a stampede from the Oklahoma City Thunder, erasing a 19 point lead.

Indiana not only rallied back but took the lead and held off the Thunder from ruining the moment as they held on for the win.

Wesley Matthews spoiled Paul George’s revenge game not once:

But twice.

The biggest takeaway from this heavyweight fight goes beyond the fanfare of a tough comeback victory. On Thursday night, we got a little glimpse into the future of the Pacers, specifically, the future of the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis frontcourt pairing.

In the fourth quarter of the game, Nate McMillan tried something new. Instead of subbing Thaddeus Young back into the fourth slot composing up Indiana’s usual closing lineup, he left Sabonis in.

It is only right that Young, being the unselfish veteran he is, prompted this move. Young told McMillan to keep it rolling, knowing the Turner-Sabonis pairing was working well: and work well it did.

Against the Thunder, the Turner-Sabonis pairing played together for 11 minutes, far more than their season average of 6.2 minutes. In fact, Turner and Sabonis don’t share the court very often at all. Playing only 332 minutes in 53 games this season, they’re Indiana’s 36th most common two-man lineup. On the season, the Pacers have suffocated opponents on defense with both Turner and Sabonis on the floor (94.2 DRTG) and have been egregiously bad on offense (98.8 ORTG).

The sample size there is quite small, so those figures shouldn’t be looked into too heavily. The duo dominated Oklahoma City on Thursday, posting an incredible (literally) 172.7 offensive rating and a 100 defensive rating.

These two young big men figure to be centerpieces on the Pacers roster going forward and Thursday’s fourth quarter could be an indication we are going to see them share the floor more often. Allowing Thaddeus Young to run more with the bench mob should produce results; Young and the reserves have the highest net rating of any five-man unit that’s played over 100 minutes total this season, at 27.9.

It would be wise for Nate McMillan to deploy the promising young big men together more often to gauge how to optimize the duo in the future. So let’s answer that question today: how can we optimize the Turner-Sabonis pairing and how good exactly can the duo be, specifically deep in the playoffs against elite teams? Luckily, the Thunder game bestowed upon us plenty of learning material.


Deciphering how Turner and Sabonis can best harmonize on the defensive end is dicier than the other end of the floor, so we’ll start here. The Pacers are a defensive juggernaut, posting the league’s second-best defensive rating (105.2) despite their perimeter defender missing a significant portion of the season.

Myles Turner’s metamorphosis into arguably the best defender in the NBA is the foundation of Indiana’s defensive success. His 2.8 blocks per game lead the NBA and his 3.2 Defensive Player Impact Plus Minus is second. Beyond the numbers, his elite rim protection and improved activity, IQ and agility have turned him into a creature of mythical proportions on defense.

Turner’s partner in crime, Thaddeus Young, is also one of the best defensive players in the NBA as well; the two form the best defensive frontcourt in the NBA. His strength, versatility, and IQ make up the adhesive which welds the Pacers’ unit tight. This is the first consideration we need to make when discussing Sabonis usurping many of Young’s minutes to share the floor with Turner.

While Sabonis is not a bad defender per se, the drop-off between he and Young or Myles is massive. When Sabonis takes the place of Turner or Young, the Pacers are replacing an All-NBA defender with a slightly above average one. That difference is blatant, more than replacing a good defender with a bad one.

Young’s switchability is invaluable in the playoffs against small lineups, as he has the quickness and the girth to guard a multitude of different players. Assuming Young doesn’t regress significantly in the next few seasons and/or the Pacers don’t resign him, Sabonis will need to take on more responsibility defending the perimeter.

Sabonis is nimble in his own right but lacks the burst, strength, length or vertical pop to make a massive impact as a weak-side defender. Against Oklahoma City, the Thunder didn’t have a dynamic offensive wing or big to test Sabonis, as he checked Jerian Grant for most of the night. Domas has ample mobility in short areas but his speed is lacking; his lack of speed closing out gives Markieff Morris a wide open three:

How is Sabonis going to fare against the 76ers, when he has to defend Tobias Harris or Ben Simmons? How will he keep Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum, or even potentially a future Zion Williamson in front of him? Sabonis is a fine four defender against most teams that don’t possess big wing ball-handlers. But most the elite teams — the ones the Pacers will eventually have to conquer in the playoffs — will have a counter for the slower-footed Sabonis.

Taking the Pacers’ current roster construction into account, one possible solution could be to have Sabonis guard the team’s five and have Turner guard the four. Sabonis would fare better against most fives than playoff fours, with the league going smaller, and Turner has the necessary agility to contain many fours.

However, this option neuters the effectiveness of Myles Turner’s fear-inducing rim protection, which forces attackers to change their plan. Turner has his issues defending the post but Sabonis won’t offer much more resistance to the behemoths down low, a la Joel Embiid.

Another area of concern in switching Turner and Sabonis’s defensive responsibilities is pick-and-roll coverage. Indiana’s primary method of containing PNRs is dropping coverage, where the guard fights over the pick and the big man “drops” to contain the ballhandler while keeping the big in his peripheral vision. This coverage necessitates a big man who can cover a lot of ground, essentially defending two guys at once.

Because of his length, agility and activity, Myles Turner is one of the best bigs in the league dropping in the PNR. Domas Sabonis a good drop defender due to his mobility and nimbleness but he lacks the athleticism to take his drop coverage to the next level.

The playtype data for pick-and-roll roll man defense seems to slightly overrate Sabonis and slightly underrate Turner: Turner is at 0.74 PPP (86.1 percentile) and Sabonis is at 0.85 PPP (78.0 percentile). Here, Sabonis can’t contain Dennis Schroder charging to the tin and concedes an open layup:

Against most teams, Sabonis is fine to have on defense. But against the elite teams who have the weaponry to go small against Turner and Sabonis, I worry he will be near unplayable. With Sabonis playing only 24.7 minutes per game, his defensive limitations aren’t an issue. Playing extended minutes late in games, in the playoffs, will necessitate Sabonis being mobile enough to defend on the perimeter more than he does now. However, if his offense paired with Turner is elite enough, it could offset some below average defense. So, just how good could the Sabonis-Turner pairing really be?


Not wasting any time, the answer to the previous question is really f***ing good. Sabonis is already an elite offensive big man, punking and bamboozling defenders with his anachronistic playstyle. Posting 1.10 PPP on post-ups (86.3 percentile), his footwork and craft on the block harken back to the days of Hakeem Olajuwon, whirling defenders into a spin cycle:

The positive trade-off of Sabonis defending smalls is his offense. While he might struggle against quick, modern hybrid fours, most of them will have little chance against his onslaught in the post. Jerian Grant, a very good defensive four, can only watch as Sabonis takes him to school.

In the playoffs, offenses slow down and transition opportunities decrease as defenses tighten up. This trend is the optimal habitat for Sabonis, who can take his time working defenders in the post.

The Myles Turner-Domas Sabonis pairing would also dramatically increase the spacing of the Pacers’ offense, which often suffers from clogged lanes. For most of Indiana’s offensive sets, they have a man posted in the short corner or the “dunker spot,” typically Young or Sabonis.

While this plays to their strengths, it muddies up the spacing and closes up driving lanes. Thad Young is a solid three-point shooter (35.3 percent) but is more comfortable operating on the block, which brings help defense closer to drives:

Sabonis also prefers camping in the short corner where he can exploit defenders inside with his inside scoring prowess: Sabonis is shooting an elite 72.2 percent in the restricted area this season. While keeping Sabonis in the short corner at times is useful, it creates the same spacing issues previously mentioned, making Bojan Bogdanovic’s drive needlessly difficult when Grant can help without moving:

The solution to this problem is simple: have Sabonis be the primary screener and station Myles Turner on the perimeter. This works for multiple reasons. First, Myles Turner has become an elite big man three-point shooter, shooting 41.7 percent from range in his last 15 games.

Sabonis has only shot 15 threes on the season, making eight, but his elite touch inside suggests that he too could become a good outside shooter, which would allow Turner to act more as the screener and Sabonis as a spacer. Look at how open the floor is here, allowing Sabonis to duck in with oodles of real estate and draw the foul:

The floor is wide open; Sabonis’ roll gravity garners attention from the defense, Westbrook is ball watching and Wes Matthews sprints into open space for the wide open trey:

The other reason our new alignment (Turner spacing, Sabonis diving) is so effective because of Sabonis’ ability as a short roll creator. Despite his underutilization as a passer currently, Domantas Sabonis is one of the best passing bigs in the NBA and is a devastating short roll creator. He catches the pass, takes a dribble and hooks the pass over to Thad Young:

With this spacing, the whole left side of the floor is wide open. The Pacers perfectly utilize the short roll to exploit the Oklahoma City’s pick-and-roll coverage, with Sabonis zipping a pass to Matthews when Russell Westbrook stunts to the roller:

With Victor Oladipo back in the mix, Sabonis acts as a safety valve when teams trap him in the pick-and-roll. We saw Cleveland execute this strategy often in last year’s postseason. Sabonis can be Indiana’s Draymond Green, playing four on three when two defenders commit to Oladipo, or any other high profile creator the Pacers manage to acquire in the future. His decision making and IQ means he will reliably find the hole in the defense and get his teammates open looks:

We should not forget about the strides Myles Turner has made as a ball-handler and a passer. He is far from the passer Sabonis is, though his improvements have been noticeable this season. If Sabonis gets to a point where he is more comfortable shooting threes, employing Turner as the short roller could be an option:

Taking into account future offensive development of both Turner and Sabonis, the most likely outcome of the pairing is very good to elite on offense. Sabonis is already an offensive hub and Turner is a high-leverage floor spacer who will only improve his skill game. With more shooters and creators around the big men, their opportunities to inflict pain on opposing defenses will only grow.

Crafting a workable defense around Turner and Sabonis in the playoffs comes through careful roster construction. If Young is still around when the Pacers are contending and is still playing at a high level, McMillan could consider actively substituting the two in a close game.

But that is not the goal: the goal is for Turner and Sabonis to be able to share the court for extended minutes, start together and finish games together. Late in games, Victor Oladipo by himself is enough offense to win games, as he’s demonstrated time and time again. Adding a weaponized Turner and Sabonis increases options.

Will the Turner and Sabonis pairing work deep in the playoffs against good teams? The jury will be out on this question for some time but I believe it could certainly work. Offensively, the duo has a perfect blend of modernity in spacing and retro game to combat the trends of the modern NBA. Adding more pieces around the trio of Turner, Sabonis, and Oladipo will be key to make the duo more plausible, especially on the defense.

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Bolstered by McMillan’s excellent defensive coaching, Indiana’s defense will always be good. But whether Sabonis will work as a four in the playoffs will depend on more than coaching. Whether the duo of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis is in Indiana’s future or not, hopefully, we will get more of these two bigs playing together this season.