In 2016, the Memphis Grizzlies started the season 39-26 before a combination of injuries to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol led to a downright violent regression to the mean that left them 3-14 in their last 17 regular-season games before meekly bowing out to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs via sweep.
In 2019, the Indiana Pacers started the season 40-20, even initially staying strong despite an injury to Victor Oladipo in January.
But that injury, plus a vicious toughening of the schedule, led to the team finishing 4-9 in their last 13 regular-season games before meekly bowing out to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs in five games—this being my prediction for how the series will go. It’s hard to see Indiana doing anything beyond the inevitable “weaker seed wins Game 3” that seems to characterize plenty of five-game best-of-seven series in NBA playoff history.
Per NBA.com, we see just how bad things got for the Pacers starting with that Spurs loss.
The rebounding went into the toilet; Pacers opponents got 30.2 percent of the available offensive boards.
The team posted a Net Rating of -2.2; over 82 games and adjusted for pace, that’s the mark of a 35-47 team. They started 40-20 and spent most of the season between 53 and 57 wins in terms of both 82-game adjusted record and 82-game adjusted point differential.
Meanwhile, over that same stretch, Boston owns a neutral Net Rating, a 12-10 record, and a bad-but-better-than-Indiana’s-putrid-output 72.1 defensive rebounding percentage.
It’s not that the Celtics are good exactly. They’re really not. It’s that Indiana has been that bad since the third game after the All-Star break.
If we narrow this further to the last 12 games of the season that mattered (leaving out the Mad Ants playing against the Atlanta Hawks), the Pacers are 3-9, own a -1.5 Net Rating (which is a bit better than the mark when you include the 10 other games post-Feb. 23), they own a 72.2 defensive rebounding percentage, and you might be able to talk yourself into “well, the Celtics aren’t much better and they just won the close games and aren’t you always telling us that great teams win big and lose close?”
And yeah, that’s a fine argument, except Boston won two of those games that the Pacers lost!
The Pacers were an honest-to-gods Finals contender when Vic went down. They were 25-11 in games in which he appeared, 23-11 if you don’t count the games in which he got hurt. They were initially 15-9 (or 17-9) without him, but everyone and their sister pointed out that the schedule was way too easy before they hit the road for a brutal West swing in March and fell flat on their faces.
Tyreke Evans finally swan-dived off a cliff. Everyone in the starting lineup except Darren Collison had injury woes at some point during the season, whether they missed time (Myles Turner, Oladipo) or not. Banged-up Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, as good as they were, were still banged up.
And if we learned one thing this year about Turner, it’s that when he’s not in the lineup, the team couldn’t guard the little bug-like creatures from “Space Jam” before they turned into the Monstars.
The Pacers’ playoff exit isn’t ultimately about the Boston Celtics or any other team in the NBA being better than the Pacers. The fact that they played like an 11 or 12 seed (again, that 35-47 pace post-Feb. 23 in terms of net rating and 30-52 pace in terms of actual wins and losses going 8-14), which over 82 games basically makes them the Atlanta Hawks, is why it doesn’t matter who the Pacers play.
Their comp is the 2016 Grizzlies. On the bright side, Indiana is way too good to nosedive into Memphis territory once Oladipo is back next season.
And let’s face it. With that win on the last day of the season, the Pacers pulled off one of the best symbolic victories they could possibly pull off, matching a win total from a massively-overachieving 2017-18 campaign and turning Bogdanovic and Turner into legitimate stars on offense and defense.
Gold don’t quit, and gold’s playing with house money. Every win against the Celtics in this series is just a cherry on top of a season that, let’s face it, was the best it was going to be after Vic got hurt.