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Gonzaga Basketball

Former Gonzaga standout Andrew Nembhard ‘answered the bell’ for Pacers in Game 3 to no avail

Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard drives for a layup against Boston’s Al Horford on Saturday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.  (Getty Images)
By Eric Nehm The Athletic

INDIANAPOLIS – Trailing by one point with 25.6 seconds remaining on the game clock and 17 seconds left on the shot clock, the Indiana Pacers needed one defensive stop to give themselves a chance to steal Game 3 back from the Boston Celtics after surrendering an 18-point second-half lead.

With only six seconds left on the shot clock, Celtics star Jayson Tatum held the ball near half court with Aaron Nesmith directly in front of him over 35 feet from the rim.

As the shot clock ticked under five seconds, Tatum finally attacked the rim, but Pascal Siakam and Myles Turner were waiting for him and contested his attempt at a left-handed lay-in off the glass. With Tatum unable to put enough spin on the attempt, the ball fell off the rim, where Andrew Nembhard collected it with 9.5 seconds remaining.

That rebound put the Pacers out on the run, exactly where they wanted to be and exactly how they had thrived all season long.

With eight or nine seconds left and you’re in transition after a miss, I trust our players to be able to create a better shot than calling timeout and having them set their defense and run our end-of-game stuff on their video and show their players,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said after Saturday’s Game 3 114-111 loss. “It’s more of a play basketball type situation and we’ve done well this year, trusting our players.”

On Saturday, there was no one on the floor Carlisle could have trusted more than Nembhard.

With All-NBA point guard Tyrese Haliburton sidelined with left hamstring soreness, an injury that plagued him in January and he re-aggravated in Game 2, Nembhard took on a greater scoring and playmaking load and tallied a career-high 32 points, as well as nine assists.

So with the ball in the hands of Indiana’s Game 3 hero to that point, Carlisle let his team play and Nembhard raced the ball up the floor.

Unfortunately, Nembhard ran into Celtics point guard Jrue Holiday, a 2023-24 All-Defensive Second Team honoree. Holiday raced up the left side of the floor alongside the Pacers guard. With six seconds remaining, Nembhard decelerated and put the ball behind his back from his left hand to his right hand as he went back to the middle of the floor.

Holiday briefly lost his footing on that move but regained his balance and jumped in front of Nembhard.

As Nembhard put his left shoulder into the veteran point guard’s chest, Holiday stood his ground and then reached for the ball with his left hand to poke it away and steal the ball in the game’s biggest moment.

Following two free throws from Holiday and one last defensive stop, the Celtics took a 3-0 lead in the series, but just like he didn’t shy away from the moment at the end of the game, Nembhard didn’t shy away from his description of what occurred on the play during his post-game news conference.

“Trying to get a shot up,” Nembhard said. “He got in front of me, lost the ball, slipped. Turnover.”

Holiday is a generational defensive player. The steal was a result of his “trademark” defensive move, a maneuver so difficult and complex that Holiday is the only player in the NBA who can consistently execute it without fouling. But knowing all of that, Nembhard didn’t back down.

The 24-year-old second-round pick out of Gonzaga in the 2022 NBA draft was not afraid of the moment and certainly not afraid of attacking one of the NBA’s best defenders. In fact, he repeatedly took it at Holiday and Derrick White, two All-Defensive Team members, as well as the rest of the Celtics’ vaunted defense all night long. So even though Nembhard committed a turnover with the game on the line, none of his teammates found any way to be disappointed in his performance.

“It’s just one of those things where it was next guy up and I think Andrew Nembhard took his game to another level tonight,” Pacers backup point guard T.J. McConnell said. “But he’s been playing at a high level all year and has really, really stepped his game up in the postseason. We aren’t in that position without him.”

Without Haliburton, Nembhard stepped up to create and make shots in crunch time on Saturday. As the Celtics clawed their way back into the game and cut the deficit down to just two possessions, Nembhard was the player who held them off longest with his creating and shotmaking in the final five minutes.

First, he did it with a stepback jumper over the top of the 6-foot-8 Tatum.

Then, he did it with a clutch corner 3 as Holiday left him to double team Siakam in the post.

And then, one last time with under 90 seconds remaining, he did it by attacking the basket when the Pacers didn’t have anything going offensively to draw a foul and get to free throws.

When the Pacers needed a bucket on Saturday, they leaned on Nembhard.

“I’m proud of his growth,” Siakam said. “I think it’s a tough game when our starting point guard is not in the game. And you learn that before the game, and it takes a lot of just maturity and growth to be able to step in there and play the way that he did tonight. He was incredible. Controlling the pace of the game, getting people to their spots.

“I think that’s something that he’s always been able to do and I think that every time that he has that opportunity, he’s showed it. And tonight was another night where he just showed that he belongs. And he’s a big part of our team. And so, yeah, proud of him. And obviously we didn’t win the game, but I thought he controlled the game so well tonight and he was a big reason for us being in the game.”

But this wasn’t a one-night-only, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type of thing. Nembhard has been rock solid for the Pacers this entire season and particularly clutch in the postseason.

After serving multiple roles for the Pacers and averaging 9.2 points, 2.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 25 minutes per game in his second NBA season, Nembhard has started all 16 postseason games and put up even bigger numbers, averaging 14.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 32.3 minutes per game during the playoffs.

He has shot 56.1% from the field and 48.1% from 3 in the playoffs to put together a staggering 65.4 true shooting percentage during the postseason, second only to Aaron Gordon and the only non-rim-finishing big in the top 5 this postseason, according to Basketball Reference’s Stathead tool.

“I mean, the confidence he plays with, it’s incredible,” McConnell said. “You see him bringing the ball up the floor. He’s getting people involved. And when he’s open, he’s shooting it and making it at a high level, I think mid-40s (from 3-point range).

“And, just, I mean, in the playoffs, in the regular season, he’s coming off the bench. He’s starting at two. He’s starting at one. He’s the backup point guard. As a kid at his age, getting thrown around like that could maybe mess with your mental (state), but, I mean, he’s just answered the bell all year. I mean, his whole career. There’s no bigger fan of his game than me. He’s a really, really good player.”

The Pacers are not interested in moral victories at the moment.

Carlisle is ready for Game 4 and, even though no team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, he expects his team to come out ready to fight on Monday as the Pacers attempt to stave off elimination and keep their season alive.

But when looking back on this playoff run, the postseason fire revealing Nembhard’s cool demeanor, clutch shotmaking, versatility and toughness to the world will be one of the Pacers’ fondest memories.