For the better part of this season, the Indiana Pacers have existed in a state of blissful contentment. There were no breathless rumors of negativity floating around the NBA ecosystem, nor was there an onslaught of, What’s wrong with the Pacers posts every time they lost a game.
In part due to their small-market geography and in part due to the unfortunate loss of All-Star guard Victor Oladipo to a season-ending injury, the Pacers have existed as that rarest of NBA entities: a basketball team. Nothing more, nothing less.
That fits their personality from taciturn coach Nate McMillan all the way through their roster because there is nothing flashy about the Pacers. They are a defensive team that also happens to shoot pretty well thanks to an unselfish approach that keeps everyone involved.
The Pacers don’t beat themselves, but this is not a passive group. They’re happy to be the aggressor. Make a mistake defensively and they’ll slice you up with back cuts and slip screens. Get sloppy with the ball and they’ll take it from you before you even have a chance to complain.
“At the end of the day, we just take care of our business,” says veteran forward Thaddeus Young, who epitomizes their no-frills operation. “We understand who we are as a team. We understand what roles we’re in, we understand how every individual is going to get their job done.”
Take Indiana’s best team skill, which is creating turnovers. That’s in part because of ballhawks like Young and Darren Collison. But when you combine that ability with the league’s fourth-lowest foul rate you get a clearer picture of a scheme that takes advantage of individual strengths while depending on everyone else doing their part.
The Pacers switch less than most teams, preferring to play physical, straight-up defense. Break through that initial barrier and Myles Turner will be waiting for you in the paint.
“We stay in front and play great team defense,” Young explains. “Make sure when we’re sliding our feet we’re showing our hands to the point where we try to make it impossible to call fouls. We switch when it’s necessary. Everyone is willing to put in the effort to play defense and keep their guy in front. The biggest thing is we got [Turner]. He’s been huge for us all year. He’s been blocking the hell out of some shots. That alters and changes everything.”
This is all so grown-up and professional. It’s also a great recipe for winning regular-season games and the Pacers have defied expectations all season long. Even without Oladipo for a significant chunk of the season, they’ve hung in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
But trouble has found Indiana of late. The Pacers lost four straight during a recent road trip against some of the Western Conference’s heavy hitters. Most of those losses were close and competitive, like a two-point setback to the Nuggets that was decided on the game’s final possession.
Indiana steadied itself with a big win over Denver back home, but then blew a nine-point halftime lead in Oklahoma when the Thunder turned up the defensive pressure and the Pacers simply couldn’t score. It would be one thing if this was merely a poor stretch during the dog days, but since Feb. 23 when they were a season-high 20 games over .500, the Pacers have gone 5-11.
At one point, Indiana looked like a lock for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Now they’re in a race with the Celtics for fourth place in the East. In what was a showdown game between the two teams on Friday night, the C’s pulled out a two-point win when Kyrie Irving finished a spectacular one-on-one move with a game-clinching layup.
That, in a nutshell, is why few take the Pacers seriously as a postseason contender, while the Celtics receive endless free passes to make something of their disappointing regular season. In Kyrie, the Celtics have a closer capable of winning playoff games and titling series by his very presence. Without Oladipo, the Pacers are left to rely on what Young calls their “unified spirit.”
It’s a cruel reality of this game that if the choice comes down to team cohesion or a superstar, every team in the league will take the star, and everything else that comes with it. At the highest level, postseason games are decided by the select few, and the Pacers simply don’t have as much talent of that caliber as their competitors.
None of that diminishes what they accomplished without Oladipo, which has been nothing short of inspiring. They got a taste of life without their star in mid-November when they went 7-4 without Oladipo, who was out with knee soreness. That was a significant turnaround from the previous season when they lost all seven of the games Oladipo was out of the lineup. This Pacer team, although largely unchanged from the previous year, rallied behind a balanced offense featuring six players averaging double figures.
Veteran sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic picked up some of the scoring slack, averaging a career-high 18 points per game. Underrated sixth man Domantas Sabonis has become a matchup nightmare off the bench. And Thad Young kept cruising along, now in his 12th season of providing winning contributions everywhere he’s played.
“It was us understanding who we are as a team, how we’re built, and how we’re going to win games,” Young says. “What I told everybody was we’re not going to be able to do it by ourselves as individuals. But if we take all of our individual talent and put it together as one unit then it’s going to push us over the top. The thing about this team is that on any given night anyone can step up.”
When Oladipo went down with a ruptured quad in late January, the Pacers were once again staring at a crossroads. At the time they had the fourth-best record in the league at 32-15 and within hailing distance of Milwaukee and Toronto for the top seeds in the East.
They proceeded to drop four straight games before reeling off six consecutive wins and eight of nine to restore their place in the standings. While not exactly feared, the Pacers have certainly become respected. And then came the trouble.
No one is panicking over this rough stretch and they may very well get the better of the Celtics come playoff time. Securing home-court over the next few weeks will be crucial for their chances. They will be underdogs regardless, but that won’t bother them either.
It’s a shame, really. The Pacers have done everything right this season. They’ve handled adversity and created options when few seemed to exist. They’re tough, resourceful, and smart. They’re a credit to the game, and none of it may matter in the end.
“I”m telling you, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been dealt amazing cards. I just had to play them OK. That was all I had to do.”
Reaction: You know how people say there will never be another … I’m quite sure there will never be another Manu. There will be other genius ballplayers. Maybe they will be left-handed and blessed with enough creative juice to live on the edge without going over the line. Maybe they will even catch bats in their bare hands. There will never be another player who does all of that, and connects with their city like Manu did with San Antonio. So yeah, there’s never going to be another Manu.
“They’re going to boo me. I would boo me too. I’m not going to lie to you.”
Reaction: Jimmy Butler sucker-punched the Wolves with his trade demand and cost Tom Thibodeau his jobs. Thibs, mind you, was the guy who believed in Butler and gave him a chance to play his best basketball.
“I don’t really believe that you can flip a switch. But I do believe that things can come together, your health, your concentration, your focus can be better.”
Reaction: Not to contradict Ainge, but I believe teams can flip a switch. Whether it was Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers or any of LeBron’s teams, teams with truly elite talent can, and have, turned up their intensity as soon as the bright lights of the playoffs start shining. The problem for the C’s is that their talent isn’t as great as some of them seem to think it is. At some point their inconsistent approach is going to catch up with them.
“I told him, ‘You’re going to come back. Just don’t put any extra stress on yourself. What’s done is done. The happier you are, the better spirits you’re in, you heal better.’ I really believe that.”
Reaction: I do too. Positive self talk goes an awfully long way in almost every situation. Sucks for the Blazers though. Just when I was ready to talk myself into believing this was the year for Rip City to make a long postseason run.
“ESPN predicted 33 wins. That’s what they said! Charles Barkley: 33 wins. Vegas: 33 wins. And we’re going to the damn playoffs.”
Reaction: Go ahead and talk your talk, Doc. You and your team deserve to celebrate, and no I wouldn’t want any part of the Clippers in the first round.
Consumable NBA thoughts
The race for the final three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference has been oddly captivating. All five teams in the mix have taken turns offering surprising surges mixed with frustrating fades in equal measure. Will it matter? Probably not! But in this season, we’ll take any kind of late-season drama we can get.
The Nets have lived a charmed existence this season. When no one thought they could contend, they managed to play .500 ball. And when everyone had given up on D’Angelo Russell, the fourth-year guard blossomed into an All-Star. But after losing four of six, the Nets still have work to do in order to make the playoffs for the first time in coach Kenny Atkinson’s tenure. They should be fine, but their schedule is loaded with playoff opponents.
The Pistons looked like a genuine sleeper a few weeks ago, but they have since regressed back toward mediocrity. In theory, Detroit could be a dangerous first-round opponent, especially for Toronto as that matchup carries heaps of psychological baggage. Blowing out the Magic on Thursday was a good step toward steadying the ship after a disastrous west coast trip.
The Magic have become the people’s choice heading down the stretch with a roster filled with oddball youngsters and their strong-willed coach. It would be a real treat to watch players like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac gain a taste of playoff basketball. Few vets deserve the postseason spotlight more than Nik Vucevic who has toiled in obscurity lo these many years. It took him half the year, but coach Steve Clifford has installed his defensive blueprint. Go Magic?
What are we supposed to do with the Heat? They play hard, are well-coached, and have given us a memorable farewell tour for Dwyane Wade. But there really isn’t much future to be found among this collection of gritty grinders and helpful veterans. Sure, there are a bunch of good players on the roster, but good will only take you so far. Credit them for remaining competitive, but the Heat are in desperate need of a talent transfusion.
The Hornets were dead and buried until Jeremy Lamb launched a half-court prayer that was answered by the basketball gods. Now they suddenly have a pulse and that’s all Kemba Walker needed. Despite shaky shooting, Walker has been on an all-around tear, filling the stat sheet with rebounds, assists, and gritty points. And it still might not be enough to get back to the postseason. With Kemba approaching free agency, he and the franchise have some soul-searching to do.