When the NBA season shut down, the Indiana Pacers had won eight of their last 10 games, and even their most recent loss was encouraging. Victor Oladipo scored 27 points in 29 minutes on March 10 against the Boston Celtics, finally starting to shake off the rust after a ruptured quad tendon sidelined him for a full calendar year. Indiana mounted a furious comeback before Boston escaped with a 114-111 win.
Back then, the Pacers were having a typically admirable season, maintaining their overachieving, defense-first identity despite significant roster turnover and injuries. At 39-26, they are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the fifth spot in the East, and at Disney World, they’ll aim to upset some of the conference’s more celebrated teams. The big question is how shorthanded they will be.
On July 3, Oladipo told The Athletic’s Shams Charania that he would sit out, concerned about potentially reinjuring his knee. Ten days later, he is reportedly reconsidering, having traveled with the team to Orlando and participated in five-on-five scrimmages. Jeremy Lamb tore his ACL in February, so if Oladipo is out, Aaron Holiday will presumably start next to Malcolm Brogdon in the backcourt. (Brogdon tested positive for COVID-19 in late June, but told CNN’s Don Lemon that he had “very mild symptoms” and is ready to play.)
If the Pacers have Oladipo, they will be seen as a wild-card team in a wild-card environment. Without Oladipo, not so much.
Players sitting out: Jeremy Lamb (torn ACL)
All times Eastern
Oladipo and the offense: Indiana is an average offensive team, but you’d think it was an excellent one if you just looked at field goal percentage — only the Los Angeles Lakers were better in that category before the hiatus. That stat is misleading because the Pacers hardly shoot any 3s, take a ton of long 2s and almost never get to the free throw line. If Oladipo is out, they’ll have a steady diet of Brogdon-Sabonis pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs, but spacing and playmaking will be challenging, particularly under playoff scrutiny.
Indiana needs Warren to continue his lights-out midrange shooting, and it likely needs McDermott to play heavy minutes off the bench. If Oladipo is available, then he’ll need to find his comfort zone before the playoffs — Indiana scored just 103.8 points per 100 possessions in his 337 minutes this season, which is slightly less efficient than the league-worst Golden State Warriors’ offense.
Brogdon is back: The last time we saw the Pacers, Brogdon was sidelined with a torn rectus femoris. This is a muscle in the quadriceps, and it was supposed to keep him out of the lineup for weeks. Previously, he had dealt with back and hamstring injuries, which turned his breakout season into an uneven one. Ideally, he’ll now be able to play like he did before all of that. At the beginning of the season, he put up All-Star numbers as Indiana’s primary playmaker.
Here he is in October, pick-and-rolling the Brooklyn Nets to death:
Brogdon and Oladipo have only played 242 minutes together, and it would be insane to draw strong conclusions from that sample. At their best, they’d be essentially interchangeble: Both can initiate the offense, get to the rim, make 3s and defend multiple positions. Oladipo is the more creative ballhandler, but Brogdon could function as the primary guy when he has the more favorable matchup. If Oladipo plays, they will need to establish chemistry quickly. That will be much easier if Oladipo’s catch-and-shoot 3s are falling. (He shot 30.4 percent from deep and just 20.7 percent on spot-up 3s in his 13 appearances, per NBA.com.)
Depth: The main issue here is not that the starting lineup might struggle if Aaron Holiday is in Oladipo’s place. It’s that the bench is awfully thin without Lamb and (possibly) Oladipo. Justin Holiday provides some defensive versatility, but there aren’t a ton of adjustments for coach Nate McMillan to make if another injury hits or a playoff opponent exposes one of Indiana’s weaknesses. The best teams in the league can play big or small, fast or slow, and they have counters when they face different kinds of defenses. The Pacers don’t have that kind of flexibility, and, if Oladipo is out, you can probably count on McConnell and Sampson being in the postseason rotation regardless of their first-round matchup.