Chris Duarte had a franchise record NBA debut for the Indiana Pacers, but last year’s Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball stole the show and the win for the Charlotte Hornets.
The Pacers built a 23-point lead, 82-59, early in the third quarter with the help of Duarte’s hot start and Domantas Sabonis’ interior dominance. It looked like Indiana was about to cruise to an easy victory before Ball sparked an electrifying Charlotte run that brought the crowd at the Spectrum Center to their feet and even triggered “MVP” chants for the 6’6 guard.
In less than seven minutes during the third period, Ball scored 12 points and handed out two assists as the Hornets took a 26-2 run that put them in the lead, 85-84. Charlotte fed off Ball, who used a devastating transition attack to fuel their run which left the Pacers flummoxed as their lead was quickly flipped into a deficit.
The Hornets’ momentum continued into the fourth quarter and they even built an eight-point advantage with 8:39 remaining in the contest.
Indiana fought back and took the lead late in the match, though the Hornets eventually held on for a 123-122 win. PJ Washington secured the victory through two free throws that gave them the lead and a key defensive stop on Sabonis at the buzzer.
The win featured a bit of a redemption arc for the Hornets as this same Pacers team eliminated them from postseason contention in the first Eastern Conference play-in game last year.
The 20-year-old Ball looked confident beyond his years and finished with 31 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. Ball’s unselfish play was contagious and it led to a total of seven Charlotte players scoring at least eight points.
His veteran teammate Gordon Hayward continued to complement Ball well and provided them with a steadying presence in the halfcourt. Hayward wound up with 27 points, five rebounds, and three assists.
If he can remain healthy throughout the season, a return to the playoffs is quite realistic for this up-and-coming team. The offensive versatility that he brings to the floor makes him a potent target for Ball’s pinpoint passes and another threat that defenses have to focus on.
Kelly Oubre, who arrived in the offseason following an up-and-down stint with the Golden State Warriors last year, drew a spot start in place of the injured Terry Rozier. He struggled from the field, hitting just five-of-17 shots, on the way to recording 14 points and three rebounds. Miles Bridges, a frequent recipient of Ball’s alley-oop passes, chipped in with 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals, and a block.
Ish Smith and Cody Martin combined for 24 points off the bench while their newly acquired starting center Mason Plumlee had eight points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and a block. Plumlee acquainted himself nicely with his new team and finished a few lobs from Ball.
Though average at best when stacked up versus other centers in the league, the 6’11 Plumlee is still an upgrade over last year’s starting center Cody Zeller who is now with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Duke alumnus is deceptively athletic and a quality passer which are two skills that have instantly helped him blend in on this Hornets team that thrives in transition and puts an emphasis on quick ball movement.
Charlotte’s exhilarating victory overshadowed Duarte’s 27 points, six three-pointers, and five rebounds in his first NBA game. The 13th overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Duarte’s point total is the highest scored by a Pacers rookie in his first game though it fell quite short of the league record, 43 points, which was set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1959.
Following a quiet preseason, Sabonis led the Pacers with 33 points on 13-of-19 shooting, 15 rebounds, two assists, and six turnovers. Malcolm Brogdon also had 28 points and 11 assists, but the big games from these three Pacers was not enough to overcome a quiet evening from the rest of their supporting cast.
In his first match back with Indiana, head coach Rick Carlisle suffered a heart-breaking loss that was already on the way towards becoming a blowout win. The eventual return of Caris LeVert and TJ Warren should boost a Pacers squad that is raring to bounce back from last season, where they faltered following a strong 12-9 start and were eventually eliminated in the second play-in game by the Washington Wizards.
However, the Pacers have the talent to remain competitive and in the middle of the pack in the East even without these two injured wingmen. They may find themselves linked to the Hornets for much of this season as they figure to be in close proximity with one another in the standings as they compete for one of the lower playoff seeds in their conference.
Charlotte is still far away from contention, yet this year is crucial for them as they continue to build around Ball who is now unquestionably their foundational piece. Their progress this year will be crucial in determining their plans moving forward and if they can exceed expectations, it might lead to an acceleration in their timeline. They have yet to scratch the surface of their potential and it will be interesting to watch them try to reach it.
This season promises to be another exciting one for these Hornets. They are poised to retain their status as a League Pass favorite with Ball set to continue throwing breathtaking passes to his eager teammates. Like all situations, the honeymoon eventually ends, but that is far from the case for this thrilling Hornets team that looks like it is ready for takeoff.