PacersrecaP #2: Bennedict Mathurin is a superhero and everything’s coming up Goga

The Indiana Pacers are in the win column for the first time in the 2022-23 season after defeating their Central Division rival the Detroit Pistons by a final score of 124-115 behind the wizardry of Bennedict Mathurin and Tyrese Haliburton and a forceful trio of young big men.

Welcome to PacersrecaP, a place for fans of the Pacers and palindromes where we have fun recapping the events of the latest 48 minutes of basketball with takeaways, scattered thoughts, and occasional tomfoolery.

After getting off to a slow start yet again, missing their first 12 3-pointers and allowing another 35-point quarter, the Pacers didn’t wait until the last few minutes to make things close and interesting. They won the second and third quarters by a combined 19 points and had easily their best defensive game of the season.

Let’s get to it:

#1 Bennedict Mathurin is a superhero.

His superpowers? Pull-up 3-point shooting, driving through the lane with fearlessness, putting the ball in the basket, flight, and making Pacers fans fall in love instantly.

My goodness, is there anything more the Pacers highest draft pick since the Berlin Wall was still standing could have done on offense through three games? He capped the 3-game home-stand with 27 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and five 3-pointers that came mostly off of pull-ups with a hand in his face. His 72 points in his first three games is the most for a rookie since 1995 and he did it while coming off the bench. It puts him in elite company.

“My first NBA win, I’m looking forward to many more,” Mathurin said. “It was really fun tonight.”

This felt like the first game where Mathurin was treated like a rookie by the referees with a couple of fairly obvious fouls on drives not being called. Only two free throw attempts has not been the norm for him and he could have put up 30+ tonight with a couple whistles.

#2 Everything’s coming up Goga

Where has this Goga Bitadze been the previous three seasons? Oh that’s right firmly planted on the bench behind two centers for majority of his career.

The forgotten big often in the Pacers collection of young bigs has been the most consistent and best center in the team’s first three games. Against Detroit, he was dominant in a career-best performance: 14 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, and 1 steal.

My favorite sequence for Goga was him diving for a loose ball on the perimeter and forcing a jump ball with Cory Joseph. As they got ready for the tip, he made brief eye contact with Mathurin who signaled for the tip to go toward the opposite end. Bitadze executed it to perfection as Mathurin took off immediately like a wide receiver on a go route and Bitadze tipped it far out for the assist on an easy dunk.

I still have no idea how he got up and finished this lob like he was Isaiah Jackson.

The bench must have felt similarly because this was their reaction.

Bitadze banked-in a 3, got the friendliest bounce on a free throw and collected offensive rebounds like a 4th-grader collects Pokémon cards. 8 of his 15 rebounds were offensive.

He got into it with a couple Pistons and got called for a double technical that you could smell coming a few possessions prior but didn’t let his emotions go too far and get the best of him as they sometimes have in the past like he’s the Eastern European villain in an action movie.

#3 Isaiah Jackson and the Pacers defense have a block party in the paint

While Isaiah Jackson was mostly quiet on the offensive end with 8 points, he set the tone for the Pacers on defense with a career-high-tying 5 blocks. In one tantalizing glimpse of his defensive potential, Jackson stayed right with Cade Cunningham on a switch and blocked his layup attempt with ease. He was all over the place in the paint.

As a team, the Pacers had a ludicrous 15 blocks on the night including 11 in the first half. While the defense continued to struggle with defending the 3-point line, they guarded the paint like there were three Myles Turners on the floor and not zero. They held the Pistons to 34.5% shooting on 2-point attempts (19 of 54) and only three of those 2-point attempts came outside the paint.

It was the kind of defensive performance they needed inside while consistently playing with bigger lineups than the Pistons. While they continued to get burned on 3s, they fought hard in the paint and didn’t give up many easy baskets. They spent much of the game switching everything against a Pistons team that doesn’t have much in the post-up threat department to take advantage of mismatches inside at this stage.

#4 Jalen Smith plays the 4, plays much better

Stix responded from perhaps his worst game with the Pacers with perhaps his best. 19 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks including this one where he met Jaden Ivey at the summit and prevented a poster.

Where’s the smothered chicken, Quinn?

Smith played much better at the position that the Pacers planned to use him at this season next to Turner after struggling as the center in the first two games. While the defense against Saddiq Bey was dicey at times, Bey ended up shooting just 5 for 16. Jalen finished over Bey inside and absorbed rebounds like Yoshi absorbs whatever the fruit is in Super Mario World.

#5 Haliburton/Mathurin vs. Cunningham/Ivey: Pacers backcourt wins first of many battles

I’m so pumped to watch this matchup for the next decade or so. Both of these teams are well positioned in the backcourt and all four of these guys might be fighting each other for All-Star selections in the near future.

Mathurin added some heat to the rivalry by talking trash on a couple occasions to his fellow rookie Ivey, who was selected one pick ahead of him. They yapped a little back and forth while Ivey was at the free-throw line and Mathurin said something else to Ivey after a timeout that he seemed to take exception to. Circle those Pistons games on your calendar.

The point guard has similar nights with slow initial starts but Haliburton got going faster in the second half while Cunningham got hot in the fourth as the Pistons attempted to make a late rally.

It took a long time to get to the Pacers leader in this one because of so many great performances but you can’t say enough about the encouraging start to the season for Haliburton. His growth as an assertive offensive force is already evident as he put up 20+ for the third straight game. This time finishing with 24 points, 10 assists, and 5 steals.

He was just 2 for 10 to start this game in a similar beginning against the Spurs in the previous contest. but importantly he has stayed aggressive in both games and eventually found his rhythm. This time the highlight offensive moments were two triples on consecutive possessions against a switching Isaiah Stewart, the first with a dancing step-back and the second a deep pull-up.

While his on-ball defense is still very much a work in progress, Haliburton’s off-ball instincts and playmaking were on full display, anticipating passing lanes and feasting on the Pistons hesistancy inside after the Pacers established that they were going to block literally every attempt inside.

Stray observations

  • Chris Duarte continued his sluggish start to the season but despite his numerous open misses this felt like an encouraging improvement from the first two games where he was mostly invisible. Duarte took good shots but they didn’t fall. He had a nasty poster dunk and led the team in plus/minus at +13. I’m not worried about Duarte yet; he’ll figure it out.
  • Buddy Hield played just 16 minutes in the Pacers best defensive performance and overall game of the season by a mile. I don’t want to say that too loudly in case the Lakers are listening.
  • Aaron Nesmith defense was nice. Nesmith moved into the starting lineup in an effort to get more defense into that group and while it didn’t pay dividends at first, Nesmith made impressive blocks, had a really awesome close out in the fourth against Cunningham that forced a shot-clock violation, and looked like a valuable wing defender.
  • I miss Oshae Brissett.
  • Apologies in advance for the advertisement (but not for that alliteration 🔥): I attended this game in a suite thanks to NBA TopShot’s Team Captain program which sent over 700 people to their favorite NBA team’s games in the opening week. Shout-out to the Boom Baby Collectors! If you’re someone who collected physical cards as a kid or still partake in it now, this might be something you would enjoy. Get $15 in site credit after buying your $9 starter pack if you sign up with this link.

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