The Indiana Pacers are 41-30, fourth in the Eastern Conference, a magic number of three away from clinching a playoff spot, and just five wins (with 11 games left) away from posting the team’s best record since 2013-14, the last time they made the Eastern Conference Finals.
Indeed, if the team stays healthy, it’s not out of the question that the team could once again make the ECF; Cleveland is vulnerable with nothing in the way of depth or chemistry behind LeBron James, and Boston’s ongoing problems with Kyrie Irving and Al Horford battling nagging injuries and Gordon Hayward lost for the season in Game 1 make them a very vulnerable second-round target should Indiana claim the 3 seed.
After all, consider that the Pacers were one dumb Bojan Bogdanovic turnover away from winning that season series with the Celtics.
But then again, it’s not like Indiana has been immune to the injury bug. Most notably, there’s that 0-6 record without Victor Oladipo staring everyone in the face; if they’d won four of those six games, as their record with Vic (41-24) indicates they should have, they’d be 45-26, and considering one of those games was against Boston, that might’ve put them just a game and a half back of the Celtics as the standings look through games of March 19.
So let’s break down how well or poorly the Pacers have played at less than full strength and see if we can learn anything about what a full-strength Indiana team might be able to do in the playoffs.
Sure, Toronto is the prohibitive favorite to make the NBA Finals—unless Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both get hurt, then it’s anything goes. Although it’s probably worth pointing out that if Indiana beats Toronto on April 6, they would split the season series with them too.
Now then, on to the Big List of Indiana records without their key players:
And for what it’s worth, Bogdanovic had a DNP-Rest in the game Indiana won by 39 against the Bulls in January.
So here’s the key bench players’ records as starters (we’re leaving aside the ceremonial start of Damien Wilkins before the Pacers released him, because while it’s a great story it doesn’t have anything to do with playoff projections. It was the same 39-point win Bogdanovic missed due to rest.)
Stephenson: 0-6 (as Oladipo’s replacement)
Jefferson: 0-1 (vs. WAS with both Turner and Sabonis out)
Joe Young: 1-0 (vs. PHX with Collison and Turner both out)
So what have we learned?
Well, for one thing, we’ve learned that even though he can be hard on the eye test, Cory Joseph is actually a perfectly cromulent starter in replacement of Darren Collison. He’s a better shooter (36.6 percent from three) than he looks, because Collison is second in the NBA in three-point percentage at 44.7 percent and makes CoJo look like a bricklayer by comparison even though he’s league average in that stat.
We’ve also learned that Domantas Sabonis is as important to this team as anyone else in the rotation. Vic gets all the press, Turner is the young star, and Lance is the fan favorite, but Sabonis is the straw that stirs the drink, better as a starter than Turner is record-wise and more of a liability to the bench unit when he’s injured than Turner is to the starters when he goes down (go ahead and just type Domantas Sabonis into the search bar here on Pace and Space; I’ve written at length about Sabonis’s upside.)
But maybe most importantly, if they get Sabonis back and Oladipo stays healthy, all other things being equal the Pacers might actually be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. There’s a chance—a slim, ridiculous, “Loyola makes the Final Four in the college tournament” level slim chance, but a chance—they make the NBA Finals.
And then? Well, OK, Houston blows them out in the biggest laugher of a sweep since San Antonio swept LeBron and a YMCA pickup team out of the 2007 Finals.
But Pacers fans get to dream big. Imagine if you’d told us that in October.