There aren't many more fearsome frontcourt tandems in the NBA than the Indiana Pacers, who start an All-Star hopeful in Domantas Sabonis and the league's leading shot-blocker in Myles Turner at the power forward and center spots, respectively.
So, needless to say, Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. knew his first game back from an 11-game, quadricep contusion-induced absence would be a grueling one.
"I got winded pretty quickly which I knew was going to happen," Carter said after logging 21 minutes in the Bulls' 120-112 overtime victory. "Especially going against a team like Indiana."
But Carter held his own and then some, posting an impressive final line of 11 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal while bringing a healthy dose of physicality back to a team in desperate need of it. Yes, he also committed 5 personal fouls and committed 4 turnovers. But the returns were mostly positive.
"I thought he looked good," said head coach Billy Donovan. "I still think he was trying to get his timing back offensively with some of those short floaters. But overall, his presence was good at the basket. He played good defense. I think just getting back into the flow of our offense, a lot of the reaching, grabbing and slapping, he had some turnovers. But overall, I thought he looked good physically."
The Bulls bothered Sabonis all night, forcing the man who torched them to the tune of a triple-double in their Dec. 26 meeting in Chicago into 7-for-19 shooting (6-for-13 in the restricted area) and 8 turnovers. Carter was key there, even eating an elbow to the chin from Sabonis to draw an offensive foul -- that was eventually classified a Flagrant 1 -- in the second quarter.
"Just hit him first," Carter said of the gameplan against Sabonis, who, to be fair, still finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists. "He likes to get into your body so he can get his angles. You've just gotta hit him first, and when you hit him first, you can kind of control what you want him to do.
"After playing against Sabonis for the last two years, I kind of understand how he likes to play. So instead of letting him enforce his will to start the game, I went out there just to try to fluster him, try to get him off his pivot foot, get him out of his game."
Donovan said after the game he intentionally refrained from playing Carter more than four-to-five minute stints, and that he was happy with his minutes total falling in the low 20s. Before tip, Donovan stressed the importance of easing Carter back in as he finds his timing, rhythm and conditioning; Carter did, after all, return roughly one week before his initial re-evaluation timeline with the help of a plasma injection he said provided "instant relief" and only one full-contact practice under his belt.
Carter concurred with his coach's assessment.
"It was perfect for tonight," he said of his minutes load. "I told him (Donovan) before the game I'm going to go all out. Even when we're walking the ball up, I'm going to just sprint down, get that little cardio, that little 94 feet. He kind of understood that I was going to get winded earlier and he told me whenever I need him just point at the bench.
"That's kind of how it went tonight and he understood late in the game, my body was hurting a little bit I was kind of tired and he understood that. So for next game, it may go up one or two minutes. And then next game, one or two minutes. So it's just based off how I feel and how fast I can get back in shape."
Still, he called it refreshing to be back. Carter has missed extended time due to injury in all three of his NBA seasons to date, and already knows well how tough it can be to sit out.
"Especially getting all these knick knack injuries in the early part of my career, first three years I've had very minor injuries. So that's very frustrating," he said. "Whenever I come back from those injuries it's always refreshing just to be back out there with my teammates. And going into the next game, we just gotta continue with the physicality we played with tonight."