PacersrecaP #3: Pacers fall to Sixers, Mathurin’s confidence unshaken by rough start

PACERSRECAP #3: The Indiana Pacers (1-3) couldn’t overcome a shooting drought in the first half or find enough stops against the Philadelphia 76ers’ (1-3) duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden and lost by a final score of 120-106.

With the contending-hopeful Sixers entering the game at 0-3 and the rebuilding Pacers fresh off their first win of the season, this was a game that met expectations much like a Michael Bay blockbuster. We got what we knew we would get. With Bay, you get fast cuts and explosions. With Embiid and Harden, you get flailing arms and free throws. Like Bay, this game had story beats that made little sense when inspected with the tiniest bit of scrutiny (no, it would not be harder to make astronauts become oil drillers than the other way around, Michael). For the Pacers, it was the play where James Harden simply stood in the same place on the wing for ~5 seconds and ended up with a wide-open three as a defensive communication saw Tyrese Haliburton who expected a switch and another defender both leave Harden to go with an offensive player that ghosted a screen.

Still, in a season where losses are going to pile up, there were other things we can take from this game beyond the final score and the expected struggles of a young team against a team with title aspirations.

#1 Bennedict Mathurin’s confidence doesn’t waver after a rough first half

The Pacers rookie had his first speed bump of the season in the first half as he scored just 2 points and went 0 for 7 including all four of 3-point attempts and getting blocked easily on his two drives to the rim. But the supremely confident Mathurin didn’t change his aggression or avoid going back inside in his first NBA road game, he bounced back in the second half by hitting his first six shots, scoring 15 second-half points, and leading the Pacers back to within eight points of the Sixers lead briefly in the fourth quarter, forcing them to go back to their starters to finish the scrappy Indiana team off.

“My shots weren’t falling and the second half, I felt like I came out with a different energy, a different attitude,” Mathurin said after the game. “And my shots were going in.”

Favorite play of the game from Mathurin for me came after the classic T.J. McConnell steal in the opponent’s backcourt as McConnell assisted on a Mathurin cut to the basket where he very badly wanted to dunk on Embiid but Embiid fouled him enough where Mathurin had to resort to an and-1 layup. Mathurin was laughing in the direction of the big man after the play, finding humor in Embiid’s poster prevention strategy.

His passion will continue to endear him to fans. After another and-1 basket in the fourth quarter, you could hear him yelling “Let’s go! Come on!” He continues to be as easy to fall for as your first celebrity crush.

#2 Tyrese Haliburton is still finding the balance between distributor and scorer

Haliburton spent most of the first-half assisting on Jalen Smith buckets and finished the first two quarters with 8 assists but only 4 points on three shot attempts. After the last two games saw Haliburton struggle with his own shot in the first haf but remain aggressive, this one he was a more passive. However, there may be something to be said for him feeding Smith and getting him rolling to the point where the Sixers defense paid him more attention in the second half which made it easier for him to get his own offense as he scored 13 points in third quarter. Overall, this was one of those Tyrese games from last year where he was extremely efficient with 19 points on 11 shots and 10 assists but you’d like to see him get more looks for himself and not be out-attempted by both Buddy Hield and Smith.

Through four games this season, the overall returns on Haliburton’s change in mindset have been fantastic. He’s upped his field goal attempts from 12.4 per game to 15.8. His free throw attempts are up from 3.3 per game to 5.3. His usage rate is up from 20.3% to 26.3%. All of these are important signs that he’s being aggressive to find his own shot and his efficiency and assist numbers to this point haven’t been affected negatively. He’s averaging 24 points and 9.8 assists with shooting splits of 52.4/43.5/95.2 which are all up from his 50.2/41.6/84.9 splits from his 26 games with the Pacers last season. He’s going to be in the running for Most Improved Player and could join that elite Pacers club of players who have won that award: Jalen Rose, Jermaine O’Neal, Danny Granger, Paul George, Victor Oladipo. 3 of those 5 were also acquired via trade.

We don’t need no water let those defenses burn.

#3 Jalen Smith continues to look better while playing at the four position than the five

Smith was the only thing keeping the Pacers afloat (if you can call an 18-point deficit at halftime afloat) in the first half as he scored all 17 of his points in the first two quarters. He made threes, got baskets off the offensive glass, and scored inside. Then like a magician he disappeared in the second half but he forgot Michael Caine’s magic lesson in The Prestige that “making something disappear isn’t enough, you have to make it come back.” Finally got another Christopher Nolan reference in.

Stray Observations

  • Goga and the Four Guards are back on tour with an encore performance. Once again we got a center with four guard lineup action, we also saw this band with a new frontman in Isaiah Jackson in the fourth quarter when the Pacers made their final run. The intriguing thing about these lineups is Mathurin as a small-ball four to me. It really allows him to crash the offensive glass as recklessly as he desires while the team still has three other guards that are hopefully able to get back. Transition defense has been a bit of a disaster this season but despite multiple guards crashing the glass at times in this one (Duarte with 3 offensive rebounds, Mathurin with 2, Haliburton with 2) they gave up just 7 fastbreak points to the Sixers. 
  • Oshae Brissett played basketball! He missed his only two shot attempts but it was a nice reminder that the Pacers do have one bigger wing on the roster if they ever decide to use him.
  • Can we stop acting like someone did something amazing when an offensive player steps on the foot of a defensive player and causes him to fall down? That’d be great.
  • Isaiah Jackson took on Myles Turner’s usual role as foul machine against the Sixers and wasted way too many of them on pointlessly reaching into ball-handlers. IJax already doesn’t get a ton of minutes out there on the floor and is doing himself no favors with the types of fouls he gives up.
  • Never forget Georges Niang, who scored 13 points on 7 shots off the bench and has been a valuable rotation piece on two playoff teams in his career, was never able to get off the bench in his rookie season in Indiana because the Pacers and Nate McMillan had to play lineups with two of Lavoy Allen, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Seraphin on the court at all times. None of them were in the NBA the following season and Niang is still around. Sigh.
  • Goga Bitadze followed his career best performance with a dud. He also got away with a flagrant on a purposeful hockey check to Niang. Bitadze still has work to do on not letting his emotions get the best of him, it worked in his favor against the Pistons but he just felt like a punk who was pouty and mad his matchup made a 3-pointer tonight.

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