In the conversation of contenders in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers are often forgotten or at the very least overlooked.
The Pacers may not be able to boast the depth of star power like the Philadelphia 76ers, or have a front-line megastar on the roster like Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks or the Boston Celtics‘ Kyrie Irving. They may lack a rising potential face of the franchise like Jayson Tatum, and as far as narratives go their off-season certainly lacked the fireworks of the Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan shakeup or the early-season splash the Sixers made when they traded for Jimmy Butler.
None of that should take away from the fact that they are absolutely the real deal this season. The East’s other top teams can sleep on the Pacers at their own peril.
Indiana enters Wednesday night’s game against the Raptors at Scotiabank Arena sitting at third in the East with an impressive 20-11 record, just 2.5 games back from Toronto.
After a ho-hum start to the season – 8-6 through their first 14 games – the Pacers have gone 12-5. Until Tuesday night, when they were upset by the Cleveland Cavaliers courtesy a buzzer-beating tip-in, Indiana was riding a seven-game win streak during which the team was beating opponents by an average of 13 points.
A testament to the team’s depth, four of those victories during their win streak came without the services of Victor Oladipo, last season’s breakout star in the NBA. The 26-year-old guard was sidelined for 11 games earlier this season and made his return to action just last week. He hasn’t quite returned to form yet, averaging just 16 points on 38 per cent shooting in the four games since injury — although he’s contributed nearly 2.5 steals per game in that span.
While Oladipo may not be on the same level as Kawhi or Giannis (hardly a knock) he remains a top-20 player in the league, a legitimate two-way terror with a knack for coming through when his team needs him.
That said, he missed two key free throws down the stretch on Tuesday to cost Indiana the game, so look for him to come out playing with purpose against the Raptors on Wednesday.
Indiana is far from a one-note team, and beyond Oladipo they have plenty to offer.
Not unlike the Raptors (when they’re healthy), you have to go fairly far down the bench before you find players who you can’t rely on to contribute. The Pacers are a deep team who utilize the varying parts of their roster well.
Quietly, they have it all.
The Pacers defend incredibly well, with the best defensive rating in the East and second only to the Oklahoma City Thunder. They have reliable shooters, namely Bojan Bogdanovic, their second-leading scorer who is shooting 47 per cent from deep, along with newcomer Doug McDermott. They have guard depth with Oladipo, Darren Collison, Tyreke Evans and Cory Joseph, and have an underrated veteran leader in Thaddeus Young.
One area in which the Pacers will have a distinct edge over the Raptors on Wednesday — and most teams on a given night — is in the front court, where, along with Young, emerging big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis have been a nightmare for opponents.
Turner, 22, got off to a disappointing start to the season, averaging just over 11 points and five boards through his first 21 games. But, not conicindentally, he too has been on a tear this month, raising those numbers to 16 points, nine rebounds and three blocks per game in December while stretching the floor and shooting 47 per cent from deep.
And then there’s Sabonis, who just might be the East’s most under-appreciated young rising star. A Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year candidate, the imposing 22-year-old is averaging 14 points and 9.9 rebounds this season off the bench and playing with no fear.
Sabonis ranks 10th in total double-doubles in the East this season with 13 (more than any Raptor) despite playing just 24 minutes a game, the fewest of any player in the top 20 in that category and he’s the only non-starter.
With the news that Serge Ibaka won’t play on Wednesday as he nurses a sore knee, along with the longer-term Jonas Valanciunas injury, finding a way to combat Indiana’s potent front court will be one of the Raptors’ chief concerns.
The Pacers are good. They are legitimate. And that they continue to be left out of the conversation of contenders in the East should only fuel them as the season wears on.
“I don’t care,” Oladipo said this week in regards to the Pacers being slept on. “They can keep sleeping. We ain’t losing no rest … we’re still motivated and we’ve got a lot to prove.”
Next up for Indiana: proving they can go toe-to-toe with the NBA’s best team.