Sabonis returned to Indiana on Friday night for the first time since the franchise traded him away
Domantas Sabonis has been in the NBA for seven seasons and counting, and he spent most of that time with the Indiana Pacers. The talented big man developed from a reserve center to a multi-time All-Star in Indiana, and he is appreciative of what the franchise helped him become.
"I'm here because of [the Pacers]. That's where my career really took off and exploded," Sabonis said of the franchise back in November. "They took a chance on me in that  trade... we went out there, we took advantage. Kind of put them back on the map... A big part of my NBA career is there," he added. Sabonis was named a 2023 NBA All-Star on Thursday.
Despite Sabonis' individual success with the Pacers, the team struggled during his final season with the franchise. As a result, the Pacers pivoted to a younger roster, and that led to Sabonis being traded. He was sent to the Sacramento Kings in a larger trade involving Justin Holiday, Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and other pieces.
Sabonis played in 330 games for the Pacers, including 11 playoff appearances, and helped the team remain competitive even during injury-filled seasons for Victor Oladipo, Caris LeVert, and T.J. Warren. He was excellent for the franchise, and it was tough to trade him. But it was a necessary move to land a talent like Haliburton, especially given the state of the Pacers in 2021-22.
On Friday night, Sabonis returned to Indianapolis for his first battle against the Pacers as a visitor since the trade. It was an emotional night for the big man, especially after a touching tribute video was played by the Indiana organization before the game.
"It was really cool. Just wish we got the win," Sabonis said of his emotions during the game. His Kings fell to the Pacers 107-104 . "Apart from that, everything was great. The vibes were great seeing everyone."
Sabonis isn't used to being a visitor in Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Friday night was the first time that was the case in 2,188 days — back then, the Lithuanian was a rookie with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He said that he didn't really remember where to go as a visitor and needed help from teammate Trey Lyles to get around.
"I had no idea where I was going. It was all different," Sabonis shared postgame.
After an ovation from the crowd, the big man started off the game strong. He had six points, six rebounds, and two assists in the first quarter as the Kings and Pacers traded blows early. Sacramento led 29-28 near the beginning of the second quarter before a big Pacers run.
Throughout the game, Sabonis battled down low. With Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox out, Sabonis was far and away Sacramento's best player. He looked to score inside and set up his teammates with bruising screens. It was a very typical game for the three-time All-Star.
Some of his post battles were against Pacers center Myles Turner, Sabonis' former teammate and frontcourt partner. They dueled on the interior all night, which was relatively new for both players. The two were on the first unit together in Indiana, so they didn't go against each other much in practice. Outside of a battle earlier this season in Sacramento, the two don't have many reps going against each other.
"It was fun... it was great. Myles is having a career year, he's playing amazing," Sabonis said of going against Turner. Sabonis finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds while Turner had 14 points and 13 boards,
"Hats off to Domas, he's having a hell of a season," Turner said. "It's fun going back and forth with him."
Sabonis and the Kings went on a late run to make the game interesting. Despite trailing by as many as 19 points in the second half, the Kings cut the Pacers lead down as low as one in the fourth quarter, and Sabonis' six rebounds and two assists in the final frame certainly helped with that comeback effort.
But the Pacers held on, and Sabonis lost a game to the blue and gold for the first time since 2017. While the Lithuanian would have loved to emerge with a win, he still enjoyed the night.
"Everyone always wants to come back. You want to come back, you want to play in front of the fans again," Sabonis said after the game. "Have a good game and get that win. Tonight we couldn't do it. Hopefully there's many more years of that," he added. The big man was looking forward to this one.
The Kings and Pacers can move forward in their progressions toward being contenders. Both franchises, and their new star players in Sabonis and Haliburton, have battled in their former city. The first trip is far and away the most emotional one. It's a fun, yet touching, night. But it's also somewhat distracting.
Now, the fanfare is done, and both organizations can move forward with their new centerpieces.
- Why a contract extension made sense for the Indiana Pacers and Myles Turner. CLICK HERE .
- Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton named a 2023 NBA All-Star. CLICK HERE .
- Report: Indiana Pacers were 'finalist' for Rui Hachimura before Los Angeles Lakers trade. CLICK HERE .
- Indiana Pacers rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard were named to the NBA Rising Stars team. CLICK HERE .
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