The state of affairs for the Indiana Pacers is looking quite good. From an overview standpoint, the team is riding a seven-game winning streak and is third in the Eastern Conference standings. They even have the NBA’s best winning percentage since Nov. 9.
Unlike last season, Indiana has managed to find success even without All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. They went 7-4 in the 11 games that Oladipo recently missed compared to 0-7 in the seven games that he was sidelined for last season.
It appears that the best is yet to come. Oladipo returned to the lineup three games ago, but didn’t look like himself until Sunday’s matchup with the New York Knicks. He ended his performance with 26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and five steals.
“Just trying to make the right plays,” Oladipo said.
“I’m still playing my game. It doesn’t necessarily mean I have to score every time. I can make the hockey assist. I can impact the game in different ways. I’ve been playing my game, just picking my spots and being smart out there.”
A key difference between this year’s Pacers squad compared to their previous group has been their elite defensive execution. They are allowing a league-best 101.2 opponent points per game, have a 102.4 defensive rating (second) and are allowing only 0.925 points per possession (third).
They have been able to slow teams down and make them work for their buckets within the half-court. While they don’t have elite on-ball defenders, they have a variety of veterans that know the right angles and proper spots to take.
“They’re good team defenders,” assistant coach Dan Burke said. “A couple of them said, ‘Look, I’m not a good one-on-one defender.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to be. Be a great team defender.’
“We don’t have great length and we don’t have great speed, but you’re a lot faster when you’re in the right place.”
Being an elite defensive team has lowered the demand of offensive execution required to win games. Another difference has been the better bench depth that they have on this current roster compared to recent seasons.
Before the season, it looked as if the Pacers would be in trouble if Oladipo or Tyreke Evans were to miss games. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way because rookie guard Aaron Holiday’s execution has been ahead of schedule. That’s a true testament to their depth.
With talented players like Domantas Sabonis, Cory Joseph, Doug McDermott and even the struggling Evans, there is a lot to like about their second group. The impact that they bring on a nightly basis lightens the required load of their starting five.
In recent seasons, that has been the opposite. The Pacers have usually had to overcompensate for net negative bench results and that has held them back in playoff runs. Instead of it just no longer being a burden, it has been a real luxury.
Two keys to sustained success in the NBA are defense and depth because both of those things will survive traveling on the road and injuries. It appears that the Pacers are well versed in both of those areas.
From an offensive standpoint, the Pacers have been moving the ball well lately. That was an absolute necessity without Oladipo in the lineup, but instead of reverting back to relatively stagnant half-court basketball, they have kept it up.
The Pacers have averaged 27.7 assists per game since Nov. 10 and that figure trails only the Denver Nuggets during that period. This wasn’t nearly the case before as they were averaging only 22.1 assists (22nd) leading up to that date.
The ball movement that the Pacers have been deploying lately has allowed Oladipo to ease his way back into rhythm. In fact, he has actually bolstered their passing through unselfish decision making and properly identifying when to be aggressive looking for his shot.
“Conservative. Picking his spots,” point guard Darren Collison said about Oladipo’s play since returning from injury. “I just think that stretch where he was out … he always had respect for the team, but he saw what he was working with. He realized you don’t have to play hero ball every time ... not that he was, but now he’s doing both. He’s picking his spots. And when the game comes to him, he’s being our closer.”
The improved passing has allowed for players who are primarily off-ball threats like Myles Turner to really come into their own. Turner, in particular, has averaged an impressive 20.3 points per game over his last four outings and one of those performances featured foul trouble that cut his night short after only 16 minutes.
It truly helps the Pacers’ offense that they have a collection of talents that are capable of consistently providing double-figure scoring performances when needed too. They have six players that have averaged at least 10 points per game over their last 10 games.
When going down the list of what makes the Pacers an impressive team, there is a lot to mention. Between having an elite defense, a deep roster, unselfish ball movement and no shortage of scoring threats, they are not an easy team to stop.