When the Indiana Pacers lost to the New York Knicks on January 2, they did so in a way that ticked all the boxes for how good teams lose games, and as such presented little cause for alarm.
After all, Indiana took 50 of their 84 field goal attempts from long range, connected on 38 percent of them for a .570 eFG% from that distance, and took good care of the ball, turning the ball over just eight times.
Unfortunately, it simply wasn’t enough to stop a Knicks squad that was able to attack the basket, hit 53.6 percent of their two-point shots, and dominate the glass for a decisive 51-32 rebounding advantage that overcame Indiana’s advantages for a close (remember, “great teams win big and lose close”) 106-102 win.
Sure, you’d hope for the Pacers to do a better job of hitting the boards, and the Knicks’ defense completely took away Indiana’s ability to get to the basket. And sure, the Pacers’ prowess on 2-point shots was a big reason they started the season 4-1 before the loss.
But the plain and simple was this was a case of a team that did things the right way on offense and just plain got beat because the other team was a little bit better that night. No NBA team goes 82-0 over a full season (or 72-0 over a shortened one.) It just doesn’t happen.
Monday night, in the bounce-back game, the Pacers took on the New Orleans Pelicans, who happily obliged Indiana by choking away a prime chance to win the ballgame, which the Pacers took full advantage of with a fantastic clutch sequence in the last minute of regulation.
It was 106-100 New Orleans with 27 seconds to go. Victor Oladipo hit a big three to pull within three points on the scoreboard. Lonzo Ball barfed up a turnover—a steal by Oladipo, playing the kind of clutch basketball he played before he got hurt in 2019—and then Myles Turner shoved a knife into the heart of the Pelicans from long range to tie the ballgame.
Brandon Ingram yacked up a long 21-foot 2-pointer that never looked like going in, the Pacers forced overtime, and a Malcolm Brogdon 12-footer with three seconds left in the extra frame broke a 116-116 deadlock and gave Indiana the win and Pelicans fans a lot to be angry about as they choked away a winnable game.
But here’s the thing. You notice how Oladipo and Turner hit those 3-pointers at the end of regulation?
That’s Nate Bjorkgren’s coaching at work. Indiana’s offense was able to create looks in the run of play, first after a defensive rebound and then after a turnover, that ensured that both Oladipo and Turner knew where they needed to be to generate those transition threes in the first place.
Without that offensive design—in other words, under Nate McMillan before he was fired—no way do both of those shots drop when the Pacers need them most.
Indiana took 45 of their 93 shots from long range (a .484 3PAR), hit 42.2 percent of them (19-of-45), and had an overall eFG% of .586.
Indeed, if the Pelicans hadn’t done such a solid job of bullying the Pacers on the boards—a 57-42 overall advantage and 16 offensive rebounds, because New Orleans is built for that sort of bully-ball with the likes of Zion Williamson and Steven Adams on their team—this would’ve been a blowout win for the Pacers.
But that’s just it. The Pelicans played to their strengths. They did everything you expect a New Orleans team to do in a win. Coach Stan Van Gundy has that team at 4-3 and third in the league in Defensive Rating the way all great SVG-coached teams have done for as long as Van Gundy has been at the controls of NBA teams from the sidelines.
The difference is that the Pacers countered New Orleans’ strengths by playing to their own, and what’s more, the Pacers’ strengths in 2021 are consistent with the strengths you want a team to have if they’re going to be a serious playoff contender in today’s NBA.
Indiana shot a bunch of 3-point shots. They committed fewer turnovers. They hit more than half of their 2-point attempts (26-of-48, or 54.2 percent.) The bench played efficient ball in Bjorkgren’s nine-man rotation (12-of-26 FG and 6-of-15 3PT for an eFG% of .577 and a 3PAR of that same .577, plus 3-of-3 from the line thanks to JaKarr Sampson). Four starters plus Doug McDermott were in double figures; Oladipo had 25 points, Brogdon 21, Turner 17, and Domantas Sabonis 19, the Pacers’ ball movement led to 32 assists on their 45 makes—everything that the Pacers do well as a team, they did well in a hard-fought win.
When the Pacers win, they do so in a way that shows that their coaching is putting them in a position to win. When they lose—not just the Knicks game but the five-point loss they absorbed at the hands of the Boston Celtics—it’s not because the Pacers beat themselves but because the other team just played better basketball and out-executed that night.
The first seven games of Nate Bjorkgren’s coaching tenure have been seven consecutive cases of the Indiana Pacers putting themselves in the best position possible to win the basketball game.
And five of those seven times, that solid coaching and players working within that system to be the best they can be on any given night led to a Pacers win.
The rest of the mainstream NBA media wrote Indiana off before the season—most pundits had them in that tier where play-in games would be required for the Pacers to make the playoffs. Almost nobody had them any higher than seventh.
But a team with a terrible coach went 45-28 in a shortened season in 2020.
That same team, with an excellent coach? Why wouldn’t they be expected to win at least 48 games and seriously challenge for the chance to host Game 1 of a second-round series?
We’re seeing that play out so far this season. Go Pacers.