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‘Historic night for Canada basketball’: Pacers' set record in win in Toronto

Indianapolis Star 3/23/2023 Dustin Dopirak, Indianapolis Star
Mar 22, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Indiana Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard (2) brings the ball upcourt ahead of forwards Oshae Brissett (12) and Bennedict Mathurin (00) in the first half at Scotiabank Arena. © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports Mar 22, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Indiana Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard (2) brings the ball upcourt ahead of forwards Oshae Brissett (12) and Bennedict Mathurin (00) in the first half at Scotiabank Arena.

TORONTO -- Before every Pacers game, home or away, immediately after the starters are introduced and run through a handshake line, the players circle around one of their teammates, throw him in the middle of a mosh pit and playfully beat on him, usually trying to rip off his tearaway warm-up pants. It's a boyish form of team bonding, but one the Pacers enjoy. The player is usually picked at random, but when a game means a little more to one player, that's the guy who ends up in the middle.

Pacers pre-game ritual:Mosh pit ritual is part of what makes them so close

Wednesday night, there was no way around it. They had to pick three guys.

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It took a coordinated attack to make sure there were players positioned so that Andrew Nembhard, Bennedict Mathurin and Oshae Brissett were all captured at the same time, but it was well executed and all of them got the ritual quasi-beatdown. It was a little easier to catch them because they were making history. They became the first three Canadian-born players to start a game together for the same team in NBA history, and they got to do it in Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Getting to play in Canada mattered deeply to Nembhard, Mathurin and Brissett and that introduction -- and the fact that they were in the starting lineup -- were a sign of how well the Pacers understood what it meant to them. All three played inspired basketball, particularly Nembhard. Nembhard scored 25 points, dished out 10 assists and drilled a dagger of a 3-pointer with 32.5 seconds to go to lead them to a 118-114 win over the Raptors. With the win they improved to 33-40, putting them alone at 11th place in the Eastern Conference, 1 1/2 games back of the Bulls for 10th and the final play-in position with nine games remaining.

Pacers score:Andrew Nembhard leads Pacers over Raptors

"Historic night for Canada basketball," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "... For it to happen in Toronto, it's pretty cool."

Carlisle was born in Ogdensburg, New York, a small upstate town on the shores of the St. Lawrence River that forms the border between the United States and Canada. Ottawa, just an hour away, was the closest major city. It made for an upbringing that was in some ways practically Canadian, so he grew up with the understanding that when it came to winter sports, hockey was king and basketball far down the priority list.

"I grew up with no cable television watching Hockey Night in Canada on Tuesdays and Saturdays, because that was all we got," Carlisle said. "We had one American station and we got (Canadian stations) CBC and CJOH. I grew up a Canadiens and Maple Leafs fan because I was seeing those games all the time. Saw a lot of Stanley Cups won."

But there weren't a ton of basketball players to look up to. When Carlisle was drafted by the Celtics out of Virginia in 1984, just six Canadian-born players had played in an NBA game and three of those six had played in fewer than 10 career games according to Basketball Reference. So it's astounding to him what's happened over the last two decades.

Basketball has been on a steady trajectory of globalization since the Dream Team fascinated the world in the 1992 Olympics and Canada's integration into it accelerated when Toronto got the Raptors in 1995. That led to more investment in development programs and Canadian national programs. Prior to the Raptors entry into the league, just 11 Canadian-born players had played in an NBA game, the most famous of them being Rick Fox and Bill Wennington.

In the 28 years since, 41 Canadian-born players have entered the league, among them Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and RJ Barrett. Of those, 38 played their first game in the league since 2012, including 20 since 2020.

"What's happened in the last 10 years or so has been just something off the rails," Carlisle said. "They've got an amazing culture of not only skill development, but they're developing guys who are great athletes, and they're all great people too. I've yet to run across any player from Canada who isn't polite and who doesn't have great respect and love for the game and great appreciation for his country."

The Pacers have benefitted from that, getting two starter-quality players from the 2022 draft in Mathurin and Nembhard to join a trust-worthy reserve in Brissett. (Chris Duarte is also from Canada but was injured and didn’t play Wednesday.) Carlisle saw an opportunity to add to the historical expansion of Canadian basketball and reward those players by allowing them to put on a show in front of dozens of family and friends each.

Nembhard, from Aurora, Ontario, had proven a sturdy cornerstone in his rookie year, frequently defending one of the opponent's best players and providing sturdy ball-handling. Mathurin, last year's No. 6 overall pick from Montreal, Quebec, immediately proved to be an explosive scorer, ranking second in points per game among rookies, and he battled back from a sprained ankle suffered March 9 against the Rockets so that he could be ready for this game. Both of them would be playing in their first game in Canada as professionals.

The 24-year-old Brissett, from Toronto, had played in Toronto plenty in four seasons, and he was actually brought into the league by the Raptors on a two-way contract in 2019-20, but Carlisle liked the idea of giving him his second start of the season. He'd hung in there despite a 12-game stretch from early February to March in which he appeared in just three games, but he's been good for double figure minutes each of the last five games.

"Oshae, all year, has gone from being consistently in the rotation to being totally out of the rotation to being in and out," Carlisle said. "Guys like Oshae need to be rewarded for professionalism and commitment to the team and being a constant energy giver. That's what this was. He's a guy the whole team roots for and loves."

To get him in the starting lineup, however, required someone stepping out of it. When forward Aaron Nesmith was told what Carlisle was planning, he immediately obliged.

"I talked to Aaron this morning about the fact that I was thinking of doing this because Oshae is back in town and Benn and Drew are," Carlisle said. "He said, 'Oh, hey, that's great. That's awesome. I'd play off the bench.' (Along with Brissett) that’s two great guys."

All three men clearly appreciated the opportunity, as they accounted for three of the Pacers' first four field goals. Brissett scored the game's first points with a 3-pointer and later had a ferocious dunk that he was so excited about it led to a technical foul. He finished 4 of 8 from the floor with nine points and six rebounds.

Mathurin was mostly his usual self attacking the basket but showed more growth with three 3-pointers to score 15 points and pushing himself to take on the assignment of guarding Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. VanVleet scored 28 points, but he was 7 of 22 from the floor and 3 of 12 from 3.

"My goal is to be the best two-way player in the NBA," Mathurin said. "So obviously I have to be able to guard 1-4, 1-5. I took the challenge today. Obviously I had a few mistakes, but as the game went on we were able to close it out."

Nembhard, meanwhile was spectacular. With All-Star Tyrese Haliburton still out with a sprained right ankle, Nembhard has had to take on primary play-maker duties and push himself to score more.

He's performing much better in this stint than he did when Haliburton was out from mid-January to early March, clearly having learned some lessons from that stretch in which the Pacers dropped nine of 10 games. This time, Nembhard has scored in double figures in five of the six games Haliburton has missed scoring more than 20 points in three of those games.

Wednesday was arguably his best performance in that stretch. He scored 14 points in the first quarter alone on 6 of 8 shooting and he kept pushing the pace and attacking the rim. He was 11 of 17 from the floor and 3 of 5 from 3-point range after scoring just two points against Charlotte on Monday.

"Monday, they were doubling a lot of my ball screens," Nembhard said. "Trapping a lot of my ball screens, letting me pass the ball. (Wednesday) they were more in drop coverage playing 2-on-2 so I was just trying to stay aggressive and look to score the ball especially early in the game. I knew the passes and assists were just going to open up. I just wanted to stay consistent throughout the game."

And when the Pacers needed him to make a big shot, Nembhard made the biggest one. After the Raptors erased a lead that had been as great as 13 points in the third quarter, most of the last 18 minutes were played within two possessions. Nembhard drilled a 3 with 32.5 seconds left that gave the Pacers a seven-point lead and effectively iced it.

"I knew I had to either get a shot or get into the paint and make a play," Nembhard said. "I was flowing. I was flowing. It's one of those ones when you're just in the moment and make a play."

Nembhard grew up going to a few Raptors games every year and cheering as they became a consistent playoff team. Just playing in that building meant everything, and beating his hometown team meant so much more.

"It was fun just knowing how many people were out there watching me," Nembhard said. "Close friends, close family. It just gave me a sense of confidence out there for sure."

It meant more that he got to experience it with two other people that he'd known for years through various Team Canada events. All three had a lot of running around to do in the two days the Pacers were in Toronto, talking to local media and meeting up with family and friends.

But it also helped that the players who weren't from Canada seemed devoted to getting a win for the ones that were. That's part of the dynamic that still drives these Pacers, part of why Carlisle and the front office still consider them a special group.

"I think we've got a good thing going in the locker room," Nembhard said. "We've got a lot of selfless guys who care about winning more than their individual success. ... We're young and we're trying to grow and we keep getting better."

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: ‘Historic night for Canada basketball’: Pacers' set record in win in Toronto

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