Domantas Sabonis came into Wednesday’s game downplaying the emotion involved with taking on the team that traded him last February, the Indiana Pacers.
“Everybody’s been asking me that, but at the end of the day, it’s just another game on our schedule,” the Kings center told reporters at shootaround hours before the game.
Surely Sabonis, who doesn’t love making headlines, wasn’t going to make Wednesday about him. Particularly with the Kings needing to break their three-game losing skid. His focus was on getting his team to look more like the upstart offensive powerhouse that recently won seven games in a row.
But it was hard to ignore the vigor Sabonis was playing with early in the 137-114 victory. Sabonis had seven points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal before getting called for his second foul and having to sub out of the game just eight minutes in.
“He played great, and he kind of set the tone for us early on in the game,” Sabonis’ backup, Chimezie Metu, said afterwards. “It was just up to us to feed off that and just keep it going.”
There was a tangibly different feel inside Golden 1 Center. It was the first time rising star guard Tyrese Haliburton, who the Kings traded for Sabonis, played in Sacramento since the swap. Same for shooting guard Buddy Hield, who was greeted with boos during pregame introductions that continued each time he touched the ball.
The Kings ran away from the Pacers in the third quarter, outscoring them 44-35 while increasing the lead to 106-83. Fans erupted during a two-dunk sequence from reserve Terence Davis while the team shot 14 of 19 in the frame.
“It was really cool,” rookie Keegan Murray said after finishing with 14 points, “especially since we wanted to do it for Domas and those guys. So it was cool to see him show out, and it got really loud, especially in the second half, and it was really cool to see.”
De’Aaron Fox got going after three bad offensive games and finished with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. It was the first time Fox made 60% of his field goals since the Nov. 20 win against Detroit and the first time since the Nov. 22 victory in Memphis that Fox finished on the positive side of plus-minus. Fox even earned “M-V-P” chants from fans, who also started “light the beam!” screams with more than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Sabonis finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists while playing just 23 minutes mostly due to foul trouble. He was asked more questions about playing his former team afterwards — and noted what the Pacers meant for his NBA career.
“I’m here because of them. That’s where my career really took off and exploded, and they took a chance on me in that trade, me and Victor Oladipo,” Sabonis said. “We went out there, we took advantage, kind of put them back on the map again, if you want to say it. That first year was a team, we had a lot of guys with a chip on their shoulder. And it was a lot of fun. Six and a half years I think I was there — a big part of my NBA career.”
The trade in 2017 sent Sabonis from Oklahoma City, which drafted him 11th overall in 2016, to Indiana along with Oladipo for All-Star Paul George. Sabonis went on to flourish, earning back-to-back All-Star nominations in 2020 and 2021.
The Pacers had a roster log jam that needed clearing with Sabonis being an awkward fit next to fellow big man Myles Turner. The league continued to trend smaller and Oladipo was no longer a centerpiece due to a series of leg injuries, so Sabonis became expendable. The Kings had a similar situation in their backcourt with Haliburton and Fox overlapping, so the swap made sense.
So far, the trade has been a win for both sides, with Haliburton emerging as one of the best young guards in the Eastern Conference while Sabonis is serving as the hub for one of the NBA’s best offenses.
“We’re talking about two guys that are in the basketball genius category in a lot of ways,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who coached Sabonis last season. “Domas is a point-five man. He handles the ball on the break. He’s one of the best passers in the game. He knows the game at an extremely high level. Tyrese is the same, but at a completely different position. ... They both have a savant-like grasp of the game and they both make it extremely fun to play with them.”
Haliburton had nine points and 10 assists, marking the first time in Pacers history a player recorded 10 or more assists in seven consecutive games. But Indiana was minus-24 in his 25 minutes.
He was given a standing ovation during pregame introductions, but the crowd quickly turned once the game began.
It was an emotional scene, which was to be expected. The Kings used that emotion coming from the crowd in one of their best defensive performances of the season. The Pacers shot 40%, the lowest of any Sacramento opponent through 21 games.
“Obviously, it was an emotional game for some of the guys, so I talked about, but it was just real brief,” Kings coach Mike Brown said. “I said, ‘Hey, we really got to make sure we lock in this game because there are a lot of different emotions. Not only that, a lot of fans and media are talking about certain things. And, so, just going in there and doing our job, and if we do, it will all take care of itself.”