You saw Pacers' Goga Bitadze's headbutt ('I'd do it again') but it's his journey that defines him

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PHOENIX — The moment was finally his. Three days after scoring a career-high 17 points in a narrow loss to the Clippers, Goga Bitadze made his first start of the season Thursday night against the Warriors at a sold out Chase Center in San Francisco.

Would the third-year Pacers center, who used basketball to escape dire circumstances back home in his native country of Georgia, cower under the bright lights, or show a national television audience that he could hang with the best players in the world? For 31 minutes, 21 seconds, it was the latter.

Bitadze drained Indiana's first shot of the game, a 3-pointer, and then less than two minutes later swatted two-time league MVP Steph Curry's layup off the backboard. With all five of the Pacers' projected starters for the 2021-22 season sidelined due to injury, including frontcourt mates Domantas Sabonis (left ankle sprain) and Myles Turner (stress reaction in left foot), Bitadze filled in and quickly proved why he was selected 18th overall by Indiana in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Jan 20, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) exchanges words with Indiana Pacers center Goga Bitadze (88) after dunking over him and both players were called for a technical foul during the fourth quarter at Chase Center. Indiana Pacers center Goga Bitadze was ejected for this second technical foul. Mandatory Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 20, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II (0) exchanges words with Indiana Pacers center Goga Bitadze (88) after dunking over him and both players were called for a technical foul during the fourth quarter at Chase Center. Indiana Pacers center Goga Bitadze was ejected for this second technical foul. Mandatory Credit: D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Then, he was quickly escorted back to the visiting locker room.

"The guy was staring me down. I didn't like that," Bitadze said. "I forgot that I had a technical foul earlier in the game (after arguing a call in the second quarter), but he was staring me down."

Bitdaze was having arguably the best game of his NBA career, totaling 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists, when he lost his cool after getting dunked on by Golden State's Gary Payton II with 6:44 left in a tight game. Instead of using his head to remain calm, Bitadze literally used it to retaliate, headbutting Payton and subsequently being ejected.

"He was staring me down and it was really disrespectful. That's how I felt. Maybe the headbutt was a little too much," Bitadze said before pausing to think a little longer. "But I'd do it again."

The 6-11 big man said his only regret was not being there for his teammates, who still pulled off a dramatic 121-117 overtime victory against the Warriors. Perhaps the dustup is too fresh for Bitadze to admit he was wrong, but underneath that stubbornness is a great deal of gratitude, too.

That one hot-headed moment in front of 18,064 fans doesn't define Bitadze, but rather the circumstances he overcame to even be in that packed arena.

"Back at home, it was not fun at all. There was a lot of criminals and mafia in the streets," Bitadze said of his upbringing in Georgia. "Just to not get involved in that, it was really hard. And also with basketball, nobody was paying a lot of attention to that. So it was hard to stay focused on basketball, but my family really, really helped me with that. And also just my family was really struggling. Everybody back home was struggling, to be honest, at that time. So it's a big thing for our whole country for me to come over here and play in the NBA."

'Coming from hard times'

Bitadze was born in Sagarejo, a town in Kakheti, Georgia, on July, 20, 1999, and by the time he became a teenager, his was a basketball phenom. As a 16-year-old, Bitadze made his professional debut with VITA Tbilisi in the VTB United League during the 2015-16 season, becoming the youngest player in league history.

Bitadze continued to climb through the ranks, shining in the Basketball League of Serbia, ABA League First Division and the EuroLeague before eventually being drafted by the Pacers in 2019.

"Maybe it sounds wrong, but (playing basketball) was just to stay out of the streets and all of that trouble," Bitadze said. "My family and my mom just wanted me to stay out of trouble. That was it. I was just playing and having fun, but I didn't really realize that I could make it this far and to even be drafted, to be honest."

Bitadze originally declared for the 2018 NBA Draft but withdrew to continue working on his game. Even after developing into a sure-fire first-round pick the following summer, though, most NBA fans were introduced to Bitadze because of a viral photo of him and Zion Williamson rather than his skill set.

During a 2019 pre-draft media availability session, Bitadze is seen looking over his shoulder at Williamson, the eventual No. 1 pick, being swarmed by dozens of reporters while no reporters are in Bitadze's vicinity.

Three-time NBA champions and future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Draymond Green shared their thoughts on the photo, which was shared to Instagram, encouraging Bitadze to internalize it.

"Use it as fuel," Wade wrote.

"He should frame this pic… look at it everyday and grind!" Green echoed.

But three years later, after Williamson was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team and Bitadze is now showing flashes of his own potential, Bitadze said he never needed that photo to drive him.

The struggles of his youth already do that.

"I've been asked this question many times, and back home they asked me this question, but (the photo) really doesn't mean nothing to me, to be honest," Bitadze said. "Coming from Georgia, coming from hard times and coming from there, that's enough motivation. The picture basically means nothing because it was just one moment."

'For my country'

Entering Saturday's game at Phoenix, Bitadze's 31 minutes at Golden State on Thursday marked the second most minutes he'd ever played in an NBA contest and just the 11th time he's eclipsed 20 minutes in 125 career games.

Bitadze has been assigned to Indiana's G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, twice this season. In two games, he dominated to the tune of 28.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks, while shooting 67.7% overall and 63.6% from beyond the arc, clearly showing that he's too good for that level.

Now, after hardly playing in the first three years of his career, Bitadze is proving that he's pretty good at the NBA level, too, scoring 10 of his 13 points in the first quarter Thursday against the Warriors.

"He's done a great job of keeping himself ready," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's obvious just by his performance in the G-League games."

Of course, Carlisle would've preferred for Bitadze to finish one of his best NBA games, but afterward Carlisle wasn't upset about Bitadze's actions.

"Goga had a tremendous night, and the attitude that he showed when he got ejected is one of the reasons that we were as resilient as we were and as defiant as we were (Thursday)," Carlisle said. "Because you gotta be defiant to come in here (to Golden State) on the second night of a back-to-back, with the guys out that we had out and be able to pull off the win."

Bitadze plans to continue soaking up knowledge from Sabonis and Turner while they are sidelined and making the most of his opportunity. He said it was surreal to help Indiana come away victorious in front of the Warriors' 400th straight sold out crowd, especially considering that his fellow countryman Zaza Pachulia won two titles with Golden State.

Pachulia is now a basketball operations consultant for the Warriors, and when Bitadze was asked whether he talked a little trash to him after the game, Bitadze smiled sheepishly and made it clear that he didn't plan on having another dustup at Chase Center.

"No," Bitadze said, laughing. "We talked before. That's like family, my basketball family. So I didn't do that."

Thursday's victory over Golden State was arguably Indiana's best win of the season and gave Pacers fans a rare opportunity to cheer during an otherwise underwhelming season. Bitadze said the victory also meant a lot to his loved ones thousands of miles away in Georgia who, because of the time difference, stay up really late to watch him live out his dream in the NBA.

"For three years everybody has been waiting for me to play and waiting for me to play," Bitadze said. "It was frustrating for them and me as well, but finally for me to get these minutes and for people to get to see me play against the Warriors ... it was a really good game for me and for my country."

Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Reach him via email: jboyd1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers center Goga Bitadze having breakout season despite headbutt

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