SAN FRANCISCO, Calif — In 41 minutes on the home floor of the most successful team in professional basketball over the last decade, Andrew Nembhard never seemed to rattle or hurry.
Cagey veterans who carried four championship rings on their fingers when they’re not on the floor threw all the pressure they could muster at him, but couldn’t keep him from getting into the paint and to his spots at will. He chased the most prolific 3-point shooter to ever walk the Earth around to start every possession but he rarely seemed out of place on defense and he helped make that All-World player miserable. He had nothing but a G-League two-way player as a backstop to give him a breath, but he walked off the floor when it was all over looking like he easily had another 41 minutes to give. And he spoke about all of it after almost without changing his flat-line facial expression, as though he was discussing a Saturday morning workout at a park somewhere.
What stands out the most about Nembhard’s 31-point, 13-assist effort in the injury-riddled, out-manned Pacers’ slump-busting 112-104 win over the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors on Monday night at the sold-out Chase Center is just how easy it looks.
In truth, the rookie from Gonzaga authored what is arguably the most important individual performance by any Indiana player so far this season, as these Pacers have never been more dire of straights than they were Monday night.
The game was the second night of a back-to-back, and the Pacers were coming off three straight losses and four defeats in five games during a western road trip that is Indiana’s longest in 37 years. The four losses had come by a combined 73 points. The margin of defeat in each of the four was in double figures and two of them were by more than 20 points, altering the trajectory of a season that had been an expectation-defying joyride before they left Indianapolis for seven games in 12 days on the roads. The Pacers seemed to have little hope of stemming the tide without potential All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton (afternoon groin) and backup point guard TJ McConnell (non-COVID illness) for the second straight night. Not long before game time coach Rick Carlisle broke the news that star center Myles Turner would miss the game as well with a hamstring afternoon.
The Pacers needed a lot from Nembhard, and he delivered the best game of his young professional career. It was just the seventh time in 19 games that he’d scored in double figures, but he nearly doubled his previous career high of 16 points.
“His impact on this game was massive,” coach Rick Carlisle said.
During a road trip when the Pacers have seen so many of their flaws exposed, they’ve been reminded time and again how lucky they are to have Nembhard.
Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard desperately wanted Nembhard in the draft even though he didn’t have massive college numbers, averaging 10.0 points and 5.3 assists per game in two years each at Florida and Gonzaga. He never finished higher than third on his own team in scoring, never averaging more than 11.8 points per game in a season and never scoring more than 25 in a single game. He played on talented squads all four years and loaded ones at Gonzaga, teaming with lottery picks and All-Americans including Jalen Suggs, Drew Timme, Chet Holmgren and Corey Kispert, so he was overshadowed at a national level.
But Pritchard saw how Nembhard’s steady ball-handling, distribution and efficiency on offense and versatility on defense helped the Bulldogs go 59-5 in his two seasons in Spokane and made him the first pick of the 2022 NBA draft’s second round after taking Bennedict Mathurin No. . 6 overalls in the first round. He then signed Nembhard to the highest rookie contract ever guaranteed to a second-round pick, a three-year, $6.4 million deal.
That’s never seemed like more of a bargain than it has in the past seven days. On Nov. 28 in Los Angeles after missing a week with a knee bruise, the 6-3, 191-pound Nembhard provided steady resistance on the 6-9, 250-pound basketball Goliath that is LeBron James and hit four 3-pointers including a buzzer- beater that gave the Pacers a win over the Lakers in a game they’d trailed by 17, which until Monday was their lone win on the road trip. On Friday in a loss to Utah he posted his first career double-double with 13 points and 10 assists. Sunday he had 16 points and eight assists on the night the Pacers played without Haliburton for the first time this season, guarding Damian Lillard while also efficiently running the offense, and on Monday he had his masterpiece in San Francisco.
In his last five games, Nembhard was averaging 15.6 points and 7.2 assists per game while shooting 53.4% from the floor and 46.4% from 3-point range. He’s now averaging 9.1 points and 4.2 assists per game for the season.
“I’ve been saying that down the line when Hoops Hype does their re-draft of the 2022 draft, he’d be a top-15 pick,” said Carlisle, who has been raving about Nembhard’s maturity all season. “I’m elevating that to top 10. He really is a special player. Our basketball people, Kevin Pritchard and Chad Buchanan and Kelly (Krauskopf) and Ted (Wu). They just hit it out of the park with him. This guy has got amazing poise. He’s strong. He’s old school but new school. He’s special.”
The Pacers’ offense runs differently with Nembhard at the helm than it does with Haliburton, still the NBA’s leader in assists with 10.9 per game. Haliburton’s pace can be nearly maniacal, as he looks to attack in transition even off of made baskets or dead ball changes of possession and demands officials put the ball in his hand as soon as humanly possible. He’s the reason the Pacers rank third in the NBA in pace with 103.13 possessions per game and eighth in scoring with 115.0 points per game.
If Haliburton has the pedal to the floor, Nembhard has the car in cruise control. That doesn’t mean it isn’t operating swiftly, but it’s always under control and he can generally make it do what he wants it to.
“He brings a different pace than Ty,” wing veteran Buddy Hield said. “They bring two great paces, though and they’re both never sped up. They play two different speeds and it’s kind of different but it’s kind of cool because they can both play on the ball and off the ball. It’s great having two dynamic point guard like that.”
With Haliburton, Turner, McConnell and James Johnson all out Monday, Nembhard knew he couldn’t afford to waste possessions and he couldn’t afford to wear himself out, but he also needed to attack and look for any easy baskets he could find. From the beginning he seemed to strike that balance perfectly.
Nembhard centered the Pacers attack around getting the ball in the paint where the Warriors had some struggles, giving up 49.3 points in the paint per game to rank 18th in the NBA in the category. The Warriors helped him out to a certain extent by trying to pressure him, because he managed to get around them and get clear lanes to the basket or find roll men for easy baskets when the Warriors tried to double-team him on pick-and- rolls. The Pacers started setting the ball screens further away from the basket to take advantage.
“They were doing a lot of pressure defense on me and their ball screen coverage was up-to-touch,” Nembhard said. “We tried to set those ball screens as close to half so I had all that spacing downhill. It’s kinda hard to stay in front of any guard when they’re up so high like that. That’s why I kinda had my way of getting into the paint.”
In the first quarter, Nembhard had three field goals that were all in the paint — a layup and two pull-ups in the lane — scoring six points on 3 of 4 shooting, and
his drives opened up opportunities inside and outside. The Pacers shot 15 of 23 (65.2%) from the field that period, hitting three 3-pointers, but getting each of their other 12 field goals in the paint for 24 points to take a 34-21 first-quarter lead.
“He played well and he was making shots and controlling their offense,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry, the reigning NBA Finals MVP. “Obviously, his stat line is crazy, but I think he controlled the flow to the point where they were getting their bigs involved on rolls, a couple of lobs, they were kicking it out to shooters in the corner.”
The Warriors countered after that with various kinds of defenses, using zones and traps and whatever they could muster to slow him down. They were more effective when they were hitting shots themselves, and they certainly had responses on the offensive end with a 20-2 run in the second quarter that erased a 16-point Indiana lead, a 15-5 run that shrunk a 13-point The Pacers lead to three points, and another fourth-quarter spurt that actually gave the Warriors the lead. Each of those runs electrified the 18,064 fans at the Chase Center in the 443rd consecutive sold out Warriors home game going back to their days across the bay in Oakland.
But Nembhard stayed steady and when he couldn’t get easy layups, he knocked down open 3s and 12-foot fadeaways. He finished 13 of 21 from the field, 5 of 7 from beyond the 3-point arc and committed just four turnovers against his 13 assists.
“As the game got more difficult, as they started to hit shots and set their defense and do some trapping and zone and stuff like that, your point guard has got to be a guy who can really read situations well and handle the pressure,” Carlisle said. “Not easy. He was masterful tonight. He had a few turnovers but 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers. “
The Pacers didn’t take it easy on him on the defensive end either. A night after he had to guard Lillard, he drew the primary assignment of guarding Curry. The Pacers made a point to switch everything 1-5, so he wasn’t forced to chase him around all by his lonesome, but he had to do a lot of the leg work and he was part of the reason Curry had the worst performance of his season so far. The NBA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers scored just 12 points on 3 of 17 shooting and was 2 of 10 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Nembhard found himself on Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole as well and was effective on each assignment. Thompson burned the Pacers for 28 points with eight 3-pointers, and Poole had 23, but the normally lights-out Warriors were 13 of 44 (29.5%) from 3-point range and a modest 40.4% from the field. Nembhard also grabbed eight defensive rebounds and once stole the ball away from Curry.
“That’s special,” Shield said. “It’s hard to do that. Score 31, make big plays on the other end and guard Steph? That’s special.”
Nembhard’s teammates aren’t surprised by much of what he does anymore because he’s been impressing them for months, and some of them longer.
“I knew this was coming, I knew he could do it,” said Brissett, who has known Nembhard since their days growing up across the border near Toronto. “Me and ‘Drew have been playing together since we were kids. I’ve seen him hoop multiple times. I’ve seen him destroy a lot of people.”
Still, it was another thing to have to carry an NBA team that didn’t have another available full-time point guard. Trevelin Queen, a two-way player with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, was called up to join the Sunday roster after McConnell got sick, and he played 6 minutes and 42 seconds, but other than that he ran the whole show.
“Obviously our leaders of our team are Ty and Myles,” forward Jalen Smith said. “But with them being out, he was the one that stepped up for us. The way he controlled the team and controlled the offense, it really showed a lot.”
And yet he made it look so easy.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers vs Warriors: Andrew Nembhard scores 31 to carry Pacers