Indiana Pacers, NBA

The Indiana Pacers keep on fighting

Little more than a quarter into a pivotal January match-up against the Toronto Raptors, lightning struck the Indiana Pacers for the second time in five years. Victor Oladipo crumpled to the floor while chasing down a Pascal Siakam break-away, rupturing a tendon in his quad and ending his season. Much like with Paul George’s gruesome leg injury in the 2014 Olympic qualifiers, the injury was a brutal blow to the outlook of a team hoping to make a significant playoff push. Indiana’s season had inherently changed in the blink of an eye.

The Pacers, however, have no intention of giving up. Like something out of a Monty Python sketch, the team has plowed ahead despite this crippling blow. ‘Tis just a flesh wound, they say. Have at thee!

Unlike the ill-fated Black Knight, however, Indiana’s never-say-die routine almost seems to be working. After a four-game losing streak in the immediate aftermath of Oladipo’s diagnosis, the Pacers rattled off six consecutive wins, including triumphs over potential playoff teams in the Clippers, Hornets and Heat and one of the season’s most stunning wins: a 42-point waxing of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Counting the Raptors game, Indiana is now 7-5 since Oladipo’s injury and 14-9 without him on the season.

The numbers paint this new-look Pacers team as playoff-worthy but clearly diminished from their former selves. In 12 games sans-Oladipo, the Pacers have a net rating of +3.1, good for 12th in the NBA, but just seventh in the Eastern Conference and a notable decline from their +5.2 mark for the season-to-date (fourth and third, respectively). To put it in the context of last season, that difference is roughly equivalent to the one between the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors (+5.9) and the first-round-departed Portland Trail Blazers (+2.8). Indiana’s ceiling appears to be lowering on top of them.

At the core of this decline has been the collapse of the Indiana offense. The Pacers have not exactly been an offensive juggernaut all season, with a 109.3 offensive rating that ranks just 17th in the NBA, but since Oladipo’s injury, that mark has fallen to 107.9, which drags them into the bottom third of the NBA over that span of time.

The Pacer offense has two notable strengths: shooting and passing. They’re one of the better teams in the NBA from behind the arc, with a 37.1 percent mark from range that ranks sixth-best in the NBA and a 62.5 assist percentage that ranks 10th. The Pacers boast a trio of 40 percent shooters from range (Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Myles Turner) complemented by efficient paint finishers like Thaddeus Young (67 percent at the rim) and Domantas Sabonis (76 percent), and their inside-out attack has grown ever more unselfish in Oladipo’s absence. Nearly 66 percent of their made baskets have come off an assist since the Raptors game.

Bogdanovic in particular has been a crucial piece of Indiana’s rotation, enjoying the best season of his career as the Pacers’ second-leading scorer. He’s been the most consistent offensive presence on the roster — even with Oladipo healthy — and over the past month, he’s found another gear as the team’s number one option, posting 50/40/85 shooting splits en route to an even 20 points per game. The trio of Bogdanovic, Collison (51/46/88) and Turner (52/46/82) are the primary pieces attempting to hold the offense together.

Team-wide, the inherent flaw here is volume. Despite their impressive 3-point percentage, the Pacers let it fly from deep on just 29 percent of their shots, the third-lowest rate in basketball. Of their top shooters, only Bogdanovic launches triples with particularly high frequency, shooting 7.2 3-pointers per 100 possessions. In the past month, the Pacers have taken 2-pointers at the fourth-highest frequency in the NBA, and they’ve done so at one of the league’s most ponderously slow paces. Against higher-octane Eastern Conference offenses like the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics, they may simply struggle to keep up.

However, while the Pacers may have lost their sword arm, they can still hold a shield. As with many Indiana squads from the past decade, they’ve compensated for their sputtering offense with a stifling, blue-collar effort on the defensive end of the court. Oladipo has blossomed into one of the league’s stingiest perimeter defenders, with a +1.8 multi-year D-PIPM, which makes it all the more impressive that Indiana has posted a nearly identical defensive rating since losing him (104.8, third in the NBA) as they had before (104.1, second).

The sinew holding this defensive effort together is fourth-year center Myles Turner, who has quietly blossomed into a Gobertian force in the paint and a player deserving of Defensive Player of the Year consideration. On the season, Turner ranks fourth in DRPM (+3.80), second in D-PIPM (+3.4), leads the NBA in blocks per game (2.7) and has allowed a field goal percentage of just 54 percent within six feet of the basket. Gobert, for comparison, is allowing 53.6%. Turner has marked the paint as sacred ground, and opposing offenses just aren’t able to penetrate the walls.

Turner may hold everything together, but it’s a collaborative effort that elevates the Indiana defense. Few teams in the league are more skilled at turning over opposing offenses than the Pacers, who have eight players averaging at least one steal per 36 minutes (not counting Oladipo). No passing lane is safe against their active hands, and they’re scoring 19.8 points per game off of turnovers, third-best in the NBA. These fast break opportunities are invaluable for a team struggling to find buckets.

The plan here is obvious enough: the Pacers will set out to strangle their foes on the defensive end of the court while hoping their patchwork offense can put enough points on the board to keep them ahead when the clock hits zero. The uglier the game, the more it favors Indiana; this is a team that will win a lot of 95-88 games if you let them.

The question is: how far can they ride this approach come April? Realistically, it might not be very far. Their standing in the conference all but assures them a challenging first-round matchup; if they sink to fourth or fifth, the Celtics or 76ers loom large, while hanging on to the third seed would likely bring them the chippy, combustible Brooklyn Nets. A second-round appearance might be something of a long shot.

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Even a short playoff appearance comes with its own benefits, of course. The team’s performance will lend some insight into which of their many pending free agents should be retained this summer (a whopping seven Pacers will enter unrestricted free agency this summer, with Bogdanovic already an obvious priority). Any amount of postseason reps also stand to benefit youngsters like Turner, Sabonis and Aaron Holiday — just ask the young Boston Celtics how they felt about their playoff seasoning last year.

In the end, it should come as no surprise that the prideful Pacers refuse to roll over. They’re going to keep hopping and kicking and head-butting King Arthur for as long as they’re still able. Unlike the Black Knight, however, the Indiana Pacers are no joke, and as the NBA cruises towards the postseason, the message they want to send is clear: overlook them at your own risk.

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