Kings center Domantas Sabonis has no hard feelings as he returns to Indiana to face Pacers

Xavier Mascareñas/

Domantas Sabonis has nothing but good feelings about his time with the Indiana Pacers.

That’s where he earned his first two All-Star selections and got his first substantial playoff experiences in 2018 and 2019. That’s where he blossomed into one of the NBA’s most skilled big men and became a sought-after prize by Kings general manager Monte McNair.

Sabonis on Friday will make his first trip back to Indianapolis to play his former team at what is now called Gainbridge Fieldhouse. He hasn’t played there since being traded to Sacramento for flourishing point guard Tyrese Halliburton last February.

“It’s gonna be fun,” Sabonis said after Wednesday’s road win over the San Antonio Spurs. “I’m gonna go back and see a lot of people that I’ve become very close with over my time there. That’s going to be the best part, just seeing all those faces.”

Sabonis was inactive due to a knee injury when the Kings were slated to play there last March as they wound down their season after making the franchise-altering trade.

The Kings’ leader in assists and rebounding this year harbors no ill will to the Pacers for trading him. There was no talk of the deal being the source of a chip on his shoulder or providing any extra motivation going into Friday’s game when he spoke about at his locker Wednesday.

Sabonis wasn’t eager to broach the subject when the Pacers came to Sacramento back on Nov. 30. He left reporters looking for a juicy subplot underwhelmed while going about his business with an efficient 11-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist stat line in a game that became a blowout early. Sabonis only played 23 minutes in the game, his third fewest of the year.

His Kings teammates after that 137-114 victory mentioned how they wanted to win it for the former Pacer. It’s a feeling that guard Malik Monk – perhaps Sabonis’ most lethal pick-and-roll partner these days – still holds.

“We got to do the same thing,” Monk said Wednesday. “We’ll get to Indiana (and) we’re going to try to kill them like we did in Sac, so it’s going to be a good game.”

Perhaps there will be an added layer of excitement to Friday’s contest with Halliburton potentially being back after missing time with elbow and knee injuries. The Pacers once-promising start to the season hit a snag with Haliburton’s injuries. The Pacers were 1-9 in 10 games without Haliburton going into Thursday’s matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Regardless, the Sabonis and Haliburton swap, which included the Kings sending Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson for Sabonis, Justin Holiday and Jeremy Lamb and a 2023 second-round pick, has been the rare win-win trade for both sides.

Sabonis these days is doing the balancing act of being a fiery team leader who can be cool when he needs to. Often the first thing head coach Mike Brown says about him is how hard he plays.

Sabonis on Monday took himself off the court in the fourth quarter of the team’s overtime win in Minnesota after garnering a technical foul. Many assumed Sabonis mistakenly thought he was ejected from the game. Instead, with some convincing from team security, he went to the back tunnel to take a breather after getting heated and getting confrontational with a referee. So he went to the tunnel toward the locker room and re-emerged roughly 30 seconds later.

“What is says is he knows himself very well,” Brown said of Sabonis’ mini break. “If he feels like he needs to go take a breather, he’s going to have time to take a breather. How hard he plays is something I admire about him. There are a few things that you want to rub off on the rest of the team … just his ability to stick with it and feel that every possession matters is something I know I enjoy being around him with.”

After the game, Sabonis spoke about leaving the court like it was no big deal, despite nearly everyone involved saying they had never seen a player do that before. Perhaps it’s something more players should consider given how emotions can run hot in such a competitive environment.

In many ways, whether trying to calm himself or amp up his teammates with positive reinforcement, Sabonis is an emotional touchstone for his team.

“He’s doing a great job,” Monk said, “just bringing the dog out of everybody, bringing the grit. Because he’s down there battling, taking hits to the head, taking hits everywhere. He’s still out there playing for us, so that’s a big thing for us. We see that and that brings the grit and dog out of us as well.”