Ever since Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured quad tendon in late January, it feels like the rest of the NBA has been waiting for the indefatigable Indiana Pacers to fold. Until recently, they'd refused to do so.
Continuing to win games on the strength of their airtight defense, the Pacers clung to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, presenting the juicy possibility of a first-round matchup between the exceedingly hyped Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. With so much talk surrounding the playoff prospects of the other top teams in the East, the Pacers and their fans had a right to feel snubbed as they kept grinding out wins. They were still on track to secure home-court advantage, after all. Hadn't they earned some benefit of the doubt?
The Pacers should be lauded for their resilience, their selfless ethos, and the myriad ways they've found to remain afloat in the wake of a devastating injury. But they've also played the NBA's softest schedule to date, which has masked some troubling deficiencies. As they embark on a daunting closing stretch that pits them against the league's best teams, those limitations are going to be laid bare. Indeed, they already have been.
The Pacers took on two of the aforementioned East powers in their last two games, and both times, a dispiriting offensive drought sunk them. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, it was an eight-and-a-half-minute third-quarter stretch in which they scored nine points and got outscored by 17. Two nights later against the 76ers, in another barren second-half run, they went nine minutes without hitting a single field goal as they got outscored 16-1. Indiana managed just 30 points in the second half of that game, with as many turnovers as made field goals.
Every team goes through cold spells, but this wasn't just a case of the Pacers missing makeable shots. It was an illustration of what quality defenses can do against their pedestrian offensive attack, which ranks 20th in the league since Oladipo went down. The team doesn't lack shot-making even without its All-Star guard, but shot creation has become a major struggle.
Without Oladipo's off-the-bounce explosiveness, the bulk of the offensive initiating duties have fallen to Darren Collison, a solid caretaker point guard who is overextended as a lead playmaker. He isn't a willing enough pull-up shooter to deter teams from dropping back and neutering his drives, and he isn't a good enough downhill attacker to burn teams for switching their bigs onto him on the perimeter. He's got a penchant for dithering indecisiveness that's killed a lot of Indiana's offensive possessions:
When Cory Joseph is running the offense, the Pacers encounter more or less the same problem. Against the Sixers and Bucks, they repeatedly found themselves stymied at the point of attack and simply passed the ball around the perimeter in search of a half-decent look. Though the Pacers weren't a huge pull-up threat to begin with, they rank last in 3-point attempts off the dribble since losing Oladipo (they ranked 22nd before).
A lot of this was problematic even when Oladipo was healthy, but they at least had someone they could turn to when things got particularly muddy - a guy who could break a defense down and manufacture a bucket or scoring chance from scratch. Tyreke Evans, the guy they brought in last summer to help shore up their off-the-dribble productivity, has been one of the worst high-usage offensive players in the league.
In the absence of dribble penetration, the Pacers often have to force tough interior passes to move the ball close to the basket, which leads to the kind of turnovers that plagued them against Philly. They end up relying on players who aren't natural creators to salvage possessions. That tends to go poorly, whether it's Wesley Matthews telegraphing an over-the-top pass to the roll man or Thaddeus Young trying to beat Giannis Antetokounmpo one on one:
One intuitive answer to that problem is to run more of their offense out of the post. Since the injury, the Pacers are finishing 5.3 more possessions per game via post-ups than they were previously, and just three teams have posted up more. The issue is that they don't actually have good post players. Only Domantas Sabonis is scoring on such possessions at an above-average rate - even then, he turns the ball over on 20 percent of them - and as a team, the Pacers score at a 24th percentile rate on post-ups, per NBA.com.
Good defenses recognize this and refrain from helping in the post, opting instead to stay home on cutters and dare the likes of Young and Myles Turner to score in single coverage, even when they have a distinct size advantage. It doesn't help that Turner and Young aren't particularly good post passers - or that Sabonis, who is a good post passer, is probably better served looking for his own offense. Against the Sixers, they got it backward; Turner and Young looked to score while Sabonis tried to thread a tough pass to Matthews rather than attacking the much smaller Jimmy Butler:
The Pacers don't reliably punish mismatches, whether it's small on big or big on small, and because of that, they don't really have an answer for defenses that switch everything. It's a strategy teams are increasingly using against them, and they'll likely continue to see it as they stare down the murderers' row of opponents that await.
After a reprieve against the Knicks on Tuesday night, the Pacers will play 12 of their next 13 games against teams with winning records, including two games each against the Thunder, Nuggets, and Celtics, and additional road dates with the Warriors, Trail Blazers, and Clippers.
Those games against the Celtics should be particularly illustrative since Boston now appears to be Indiana's most likely first-round opponent. The Celtics may have been a disappointment this season, but they're still a nasty, intelligent, well-prepared defensive outfit that can switch one through five and that excels at forcing opponents out of their comfort zone.
As inspiring as the Pacers' Oladipo-less play has been, there are clear limits to what they can do, and those limits are finally catching up to them. Indiana's still capable of beating good teams with its hard-nosed defense, unshakeable team concept, and sheer night-to-night effort. But when the competition - and the stakes - are ratcheted up in the spring, that effort likely won't get the Pacers much further than it did the past two games.