3 reasons the Pacers can shock the world and win the East

Photo of 3 reasons the Pacers can shock the world and win the East

A Finals trip without Victor Oladipo is improbable, but never count the Pacers out.

In mid-January, the Pacers were on a roll, somehow building on last year’s surprise breakout 48-win campaign and challenging first place in the East. Then, Victor Oladipo ruptured his quad.

A horrible injury to a leader and lone all-star would devastate most teams, but not this one. After a rough start to the post-Oladipo era, the Pacers held together and maintained their seeding in the tough East.

A trip to the Finals would certainly be improbable, but don’t count them out. They have a winnable first-round matchup against the Jekyll-and-Hyde Celtics, and they certainly have the defense to give themselves a puncher’s chance against Milwaukee. Win those series, and anything can happen.

Here are three reasons why the Oladipo-less Pacers are a real threat to win the East.

1. Their defense really is that good

In a league where switching is en vogue and zone is making a strong comeback, the Pacers succeed by ditching all the gimmicks. They rank in the top five in points allowed per 100 possessions by following simple principles. They stay in front of their men, keep their hands up, and funnel all penetration to shot-blocking big man Myles Turner.

Not switching as a default maintains accountability. The Pacers all fight through screens to recover because their teammates are doing the same thing. As Thaddeus Young told SB Nation’s Paul Flannery:

“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.”

Turner has made significant strides as a rim protector, but the Pacers’ defense continues to shine with him on the bench. That’s because of the way they work together to stay in front of their men, using their length and physicality to keep defenders out of the lane. Young, Wesley Matthews, and Cory Joseph are elite one-on-one clamp defenders, while Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Domantas Sabonis are excellent positionally.

That approach explains how Indiana forces so many live-ball turnovers without fouling or surrendering high-leverage looks. They lead the league in points off opponent mistakes by a wide margin, but also rank near the top of the league in lowest opponent foul rate. The absence of Oladipo robbed Indiana of some of its quick-strike ability, but the Pacers still ranked in the top five in opponent turnover percentage since his season-ending injury.

They close space and then pounce, rather than selling out their principles. In this way, turnovers become a byproduct of the scheme rather than the purpose of it.

This makes the Pacers an incredibly difficult matchup for any team that relies on a high-scoring perimeter player to generate points and ball movement. Hello, Boston.

2. They have no weak links

The playoffs are where stars shine, but they’re also where teams identify weaknesses and target them repeatedly. It becomes more important to have what Draymond Green dubbed “16-game players,” ones who are defined more by their lack of weaknesses than any specific strength.

The Pacers don’t have Oladipo, but they’re stocked with 16-game players. Their rotation is built for April: Eight different Pacers averaged double-digit points this season, and only Doug McDermott can be classified as a defensive liability.

That allows them to shift lineups depending on the matchup and not suffer much on either end. They can play big with Turner and Domantas Sabonis together up front, or they can downsize and put Bojan Bogdanovic at power forward. They can use point guards Darren Collison and Cory Joseph together, or they can bench both and let Tyreke Evans run the offense.

The Pacers certainly have team-wide weaknesses, but they are not vulnerable to opponents taking advantage of a mismatch on either end of the court.

Bojan Bogdanovic is the most underrated player in the playoffs

Oladipo’s injury meant someone needed to pick up the offensive slack, and that someone was Bogdanovic. The veteran Slovenian forward took on more usage with Oladipo absent and maintained his sizzling scoring efficiency.

One could argue he was Indiana’s best offensive player this year even with Oladipo in the lineup, given his shooting proficiency from every area. Bogdanovic is one of the league’s best three-point shooters, but he can also operate in the mid-range area, or slice to the hoop when teams try to play him tightly. He’s adept coming off screens, generating his own shot out of the pick-and-roll, and posting up smaller players.

The Pacers do generate offense by committee, but Bogdanovic is certainly the chair: Indiana scores at a solid rate with him in the game and falls apart with him on the bench.

Bogdanovic isn’t mentioned in the same breath as other high-scoring wing free agents like Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, and Tobias Harris, but he’s every bit as valuable as them.

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