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The Pacers Have Perfected The Art Of Winning Ugly

INDIANAPOLIS — If there’s one thing that’s become almost painstakingly clear about the Indiana Pacers this season, it’s that they’re an acquired taste among basketball fans.

Unless you’re from the state of Indiana, chances are you’re not going to find this club all that sexy. In a league flush with pace, dunks and threes, the Pacers rank near the bottom in all three. Their franchise player, high-flying All-Star Victor Oladipo, went down with a devastating, season-ending injury in January, supposedly ruining whatever chance the club had of making a deep playoff run — if it could even finish the job and reach the postseason to begin with.

But focusing on what the Pacers don’t have, or won’t accomplish, might make you miss something important: Indiana possesses perhaps more grit than any NBA team.

Of course there are two concerns with a statement like that. First, as numbers-heavy as we are at this site, we couldn’t quite come up with anything to measure the Pacers’ heart (although we pieced together a number of things to make a solid argument). Second, and perhaps more important for the time being: For all the heart Indiana possesses, looking at the team’s recent results might lead you to believe the struggling team is on life support.

Before their home win here over the Pistons on Monday night, the Pacers had lost seven of their past eight and were coming off a dismal 4-10 record in March, by far their worst month of the campaign. They’ll head into Detroit on Wednesday in the midst of a 10-game road-losing streak — concerning for a team in danger of falling to the fifth seed and losing home-court advantage in the first round.

Aside from a much tougher schedule lately (of those 10-straight road defeats, nine have come to teams that will make the playoffs),1 Indiana has struggled to generate consistent offense in Oladipo’s absence. The team logged just 106.5 points per 100 possessions during the month of March, the league’s fourth-worst scoring attack during that span, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

More and more, the Pacers’ hardscrabble offense has been putting too much pressure on the team’s third-ranked defense. Before Oladipo’s injury ended his season, Indiana was 16-12 when giving up 100 points or more. But since he left the lineup, and the team’s margin for error shrank immeasurably, the Pacers have gone just 6-17 when surrendering 100 or more.

Understandably, the team was a mess immediately after Oladipo’s injury, which required him to be carried off on a stretcher before the home crowd. General manager Kevin Pritchard gave an emotional rallying cry in the locker room after the game, reminding the players that they’d gone 7-4 without Oladipo already this season (as opposed to 0-7 the season before) and were still 5 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with him off the floor. But that didn’t stop Indiana from falling into a season-worst four-game skid. Adjustments were needed.

“It’s a totally different thing to play those 11 games without him when you know in the back of your mind that you’re going to get him back healthy,” coach Nate McMillan said of Oladipo, who was also an All-NBA defender. “But after the injury, we knew he wasn’t coming back. So we had to change everything [in our offense] and hit the reset button.”

That meant shifting from a relatively open system — one that often encouraged players (especially Oladipo) to take midrange shots if opponents sagged off — to one that’s more heavily synchronized. Indiana has tripled its number of ball screens for Bojan Bogdanovic,2 giving him a downhill advantage to set up open teammates if and when defenses collapse into the paint.

With more playmaking responsibilities, Bogdanovic has upped his scoring average from 16 points before the Oladipo injury to almost 22 per game since then. He and Wes Matthews, who signed with the Pacers after being bought out following the trade deadline, have replaced the vast majority of Oladipo’s shot attempts. Thaddeus Young’s play has been noteworthy, too, as he has basically doubled his assist average since Oladipo went down. All three players factored into Indiana turning things around in February, winning eight of nine — albeit against suspect competition.

Effort has been one of Indiana’s defining traits, both this season and in previous years. After posting that 0-7 mark without Oladipo in 2017-18, the Pacers now stand 21-21 in games without their star this season. They’re highly physical, almost always preferring to fight through screens as opposed to switching on defense, like most teams do. They dive on the floor for extra possessions and rank near the top in recovering loose balls on D. And they’ve developed an attitude that suggests that no deficit is too big for them to overcome. In one of their best wins of the season, the Pacers rallied from 19 down last month to beat ex-Indiana star Paul George and the Thunder. It marked a league-high 19th time over the past three seasons that Indiana had come back to win a game it once trailed by 15 points or more, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

But the struggles over the past month and change have illustrated that effort, which these Pacers are built on, can take you only so far — especially now that Indiana’s foes are bona fide playoff clubs again.

“When you’re struggling offensively, it’s hard to grind on these guys and yell, ‘C’mon guys: Keep guarding! Get your intensity up!’ when you can just see their confidence oozing out of them and slipping away with each missed shot,” Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke told me.

Put another way: At a certain point, you can only get so much defense out of a team that isn’t producing anything on offense.

That isn’t to suggest there isn’t talent on the roster, because there is. It just hasn’t been reliable from top to bottom. Take the two biggest acquisitions from last summer: Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott. Evans, who figured to be an enormous insurance policy as a ball-handler in case anything happened to Oladipo, has been the NBA’s worst finisher at the rim.3 And while McDermott has been fine, he’s had unusually wild shooting swings, depending on whether he’s playing at home (just over 30 percent from 3-point range) or on the road (where he’s slightly better than 48 percent from 3-point range).

Indiana uses cutters better than most teams. But the Pacers are often slow to identify the mismatches they have when opposing defenses counter their screen-and-roll action with a switch. In fact, no team generates less efficient offense than the Pacers (who score a minuscule 0.81 points per possession) do when getting a switch, according to data from Second Spectrum.

And as you might guess, crunch-time offense has often been a struggle for Indiana, one of a handful of teams to average less than 1 point per possession in those scenarios since Oladipo’s injury.

There are obviously plenty of things the Pacers do well, and they still somehow have an outside chance of reaching the 50-win mark. Domantas Sabonis has become one of the NBA’s most efficient bench scorers. Indy shoots very well from three; they simply don’t take many (29th in attempt rate). Yet the team’s bread and butter is its defense, where players like Young and block machine Myles Turner (both of whom deserve All-Defensive Team consideration)4 frequently force opponents into mistakes. Indiana has occasional breakdowns, too, of course. But the fact remains that the Pacers usually keep themselves in games on that end of the floor.

Whether their defense will keep them in the playoffs for long is a separate question. But even if it doesn’t, we can rest assured that the Pacers — warts and all — will leave whatever they’ve got on the court.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. This rationale might comfort Pacers fans. But if Indiana can’t beat playoff-caliber teams on the road anymore, that probably speaks volumes about the team’s prospects of making it out of a second-round series, if it even gets that far.

  2. Since February, Bogdanovic has gotten a ball screen 12.7 times per 100 possessions — up from just 4.2 per 100 possessions prior to Oladipo’s injury, according to data from Second Spectrum.

  3. Literally the worst. Out of the 85 players who have taken at least 250 shots from the restricted area, Evans — at 45.7 percent — is the only one shooting worse than 50 percent.

  4. And in Turner’s case, Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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