Simmering frustrations boiled over in a big way on the Indiana Pacers’ bench when center Goga Bitadze clashed with assistant coach Greg Foster during Wednesday’s 104-93 loss to the Kings at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren found himself answering questions about a heated exchange on the team’s bench a day after ESPN reported he faces an uncertain future with the organization due in part to his relationship with players.
“We’re in a frustrating stretch here; a lot going on with the challenges of navigating through a season,” Bjorkgren said after the Pacers lost for the fourth time in five games. “The competitive juices are flowing and things like that will happen.”
Marvin Bagley III posted a season-high 31 points and 12 rebounds as the Kings (29-37) punished the Pacers (30-35) around the basket. Sacramento had a 62-46 advantage on points in the paint. The Kings forced 21 turnovers and outscored Indiana 28-11 on fast-break points.
Bjorkgren was asked about Bagley’s impressive play in a performance that might have lit the fuse between Bitadze and Foster.
“It was just the physicality of him around the rim and he got to the spots where he wanted to get to,” Bjorkgren said. “We’ve got to do a better job of not allowing that, not allowing him to play so free.”
Foster stood up and shouted at Bitadze when Kings forward Maurice Harkless waltzed past him for an uncontested dunk that put Sacramento up by 24 late in the third quarter. After making a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, Bitadze, a 21-year-old from Eastern Europe, appeared to tell Foster to “sit the f— down.”
Bitadze is a 6-foot-11, 250-pound second-year center who was selected with the 18th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Foster, 52, spent 13 seasons in the NBA as a 6-11, 250-pound center who faced the Kings in the playoffs with the Utah Jazz in 1998-99. Foster retired in 2003, but he still looks as big and strong as any of the Indiana big men.
Bitadze and Foster barked at each other while the ball was still in play and had to be separated when Foster angrily charged toward Bitadze as soon as play was whistled dead. About a dozen Indiana players and coaches stepped between them to prevent the confrontation from escalating further.
Sources told ESPN on Thursday the Pacers were fining Bitadze and suspending Foster for one game.
Trying to regroup
After the game, Bjorkgren said he had spoken to Foster and Bitadze about the situation and intended to discuss it further.
“I’ve talked to both of them about it and I’m going to talk to them more about it right after this,” Bjorkgren said. “I’m going to find out exactly what was said, and in what way, and go from there. But I did have individual conversations, and, again, they’re both trying so hard. They’re both competitive. They both want what was best for the team. It just didn’t happen that way. And, again, with the frustration part of it, it boiled over there a little bit. We’ll come together.”
Bjorkgren was asked how the Pacers can regroup with another tough game against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday.
“These games come at you so quick,” he said. “You’ve got to turn your focus to the next one, keep sticking together and keep fighting for each other. There’s been some frustrating moments, but through a season, things like that happen. I’m going to do everything in my power to keep the guys together and keep coaching, and work as hard as I can on it and get them ready for the next one. That’s my job.”