Exceeding expectations and silencing those who doubt them is a skill the Indiana Pacers have mastered. When they traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the 2017 offseason, the expectations for the franchise plummeted. Talks of tanking, rebuilding, and starting over after the move away from George were prevalent. That was until the season began.
Led by the newcomer Oladipo, the Pacers cemented themselves as a team that would simply never back down, and win many more games than the majority anticipated them to. They won 48 games, were the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, and pushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, falling by just four points in the final game of the season. They fought with a valiant effort and shocked the rest of the league. Oladipo rose as a superstar for Indiana and made it clear that he could be a lead dog on a good team.
Heading into this season, the expectations were set for Indiana, with most predictions slating them to finish as a fifth or sixth seed in the conference. But the Pacers were interested in showing that those expectations were far too low for such a talented team. As of the morning of March 4th, Indiana lies in control of the third seed, at 41-23.
Maybe the Pacers were destined to exceed expectations, as they did in the previous season, but they’ve done so for the last 17 games without their star in Oladipo, who suffered a season-ending injury, a ruptured quad, late in January. Again, the belief was that the Pacers would crumble, and drop towards the bottom end of playoff teams in the east. But that just hasn’t been the case.
Indiana’s system is built off of a mindset that every player on the floor is equally as important as their counterparts on the court, and because of that philosophy, the team has stayed afloat in the All-Star’s absence. They are 9-8 since the 26th, the first game they played without Oladipo, but in reality, they’re 10-8 in his absence, as he played just 10 minutes against the Toronto Raptors before suffering the injury in a game that Indiana won by four points.
The Pacers have vowed to replace Oladipo’s production by committee and have done an exceptional job in doing so. The team made perhaps the biggest splash in the buyout market, nabbing Wesley Matthews in a move that was less than anticipated after he was bought out by the New York Knicks. At first larger roles came for younger guards Edmund Sumner and Aaron Holiday, but their minutes recently have squandered. Besides Matthews, the Pacers remained the same, roster-wise.
The Pacers toggled with their starting lineup, before the addition of Matthews, but have since settled on the following starting group: Darren Collison, Wesley Matthews, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Myles Turner. The lineup has just a negative-1.0 net rating, but for being Indiana’s most used lineup, they have been pretty solid.
Each member of this starting group has averaged more points per game during this stretch than their season average, with Bojan Bogdanovic leading the way at 21.8 points per game. Darren Collison has averaged 14.1 points while shooting 48 percent from the 3-point line and chipping in 7.1 assists per game. Myles Turner’s scoring has jumped to 14 points per contest as well.
But the starting lineup isn’t really what matters with the Pacers, because again, they play in a by committee kind of way. They rely heavily on key bench pieces such as Domantas Sabonis, Cory Joesph, Tyreke Evans, and Doug McDermott to play big minutes and provide production for them. They have also made it a very obvious project to continue to play T.J. Leaf, as they believe he can become an effective stretch-big off the bench.
Sabonis continues to have a Sixth Man of the Year worthy campaign. He’s averaged about as close to a double-double as possible off the bench, at 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He’s a super efficient scorer and rebounder, who also has good passing capabilities for a big. But, he’s been another man to go down for the Pacers, as he has missed the past three games for them after suffering an ankle injury against the Pistons.
While there certainly isn’t a sole reason as to why Indiana has been able to win games with Oladipo out, Bojan Bogdanovic’s play has been the biggest reason. He had a large role in the offense before Oladipo went down, so he was already accustomed to a lot of touches, but he has become the main option on that side of the floor for the Pacers. He’s taking 15.8 shots per game, which is 5.1 more attempts than anyone else on the team during this stretch. He’s maintained excellent efficiency in the process and is even averaging 0.3 more assists per game during this time than his whole season average.
As a lights out shooter, the Pacers have been able to maximize their usage of Bogdanovic, by making him their number one option. This play design is beautiful by head coach Nate McMillan. As Joseph brings the ball past mid-court, Turner begins to advance towards him to set a ball screen. As Joseph begins his move, Turner clears away from him, never actually setting the screen. Instead, he goes to the left side of the high post and sets a screen for Bogdanovic, who flashes up to the top of the key after hiding in the corner. The play design is rather simple, but it caught Orlando off guard. All four other Pacers treaded on the right side of the court, leaving Bogdanovic alone with just one defender. After a hearty screen from Turner, Wesley Iwundu is trapped behind him, leaving Bogey open for the 3-pointer.
But, he’s so much more than a spot-up shooter. He possesses a smooth and concise handle, that allows him to operate in the pick-and-roll with ease. Here, he receives a screen from Turner and finishes over Andre Drummond, who was leaning over Bogdanovic on his attack to the rim. Again, it isn’t flashy with Bogdanovic, but it is effective.
Outside of Bogdanovic, Myles Turner continues to show why the Pacers gave him big money earlier this year. He has shot 40 percent from the 3-point line this season, and while he isn’t necessarily taking more shots or playing a larger role on offense, his steady contributions have helped Indiana’s offense remain stable.
But what is most important is the defense that Turner provides. He is a clear candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award, displaying elite shot-blocking ability, knowledgable help-side attentiveness, and is quick enough to defend out on the perimeter. The Texas product has averaged 2.8 blocks and 0.8 steals per contest this year.
But the skid may be beginning for the Pacers. They have dropped three of their last four games, and with Sabonis’ return yet to be determined, are even thinner than they already were without Oladipo. The Philadelphia 76ers have quickly caught up ground on Indiana, and are just a half game back on the Pacers.
According to Tankathon, they have the fourth hardest schedule remaining, while the Sixers have the sixth-easiest schedule. Assuming that the 76ers jump Indiana, that would match the Pacers with the Boston Celtics for a first-round playoff matchup, a much tougher opposition than the Brooklyn Nets, Detroit Pistons, or any other bottom of the playoff contending teams in the East.
The Pacers will just have to continue to do what they have done all season: overcome the odds. They’ve become pretty damn good at it, so don’t count them out on doing it again.