Victor Oladipo couldn’t believe it. He had an ice pack wrapped around each knee and a towel around his waist. It was March 27, and the Pacers had just beaten the Warriors in Oakland—which is not the thing he couldn’t believe.
That evening, Golden State was without the services of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Steph Curry due to injuries. Steve Kerr ran out his 24th different starting lineup, which was 10 more than the Warriors used all of last season. Indiana didn’t mind. It had already clinched a playoff spot the game before by upending the Heat at home in overtime, but the Pacers were still fighting for seeding and home-court advantage in the first round. Catching the Warriors when they were fielding the equivalent of a G League lineup suited the Pacers just fine.
Oladipo’s surprise came after the game as he sat in a folding chair in front of his stall in Oracle Arena’s visitors locker room. That’s when he finally looked at his phone. His teammates on either side of him were doing the same thing—Al Jefferson, Myles Turner, and Lance Stephenson to his right, Trevor Booker and Thad Young to his left. That’s part of their routine these days—play a game and then check in on the competition. That’s when Oladipo noticed that Milwaukee was playing on national television against the Clippers. As Domantas Sabonis sat down next to him, Oladipo relayed the information.
“That game on TNT,” Oladipo said. “Bucks vs. Clippers.” Then he shook his head. It was hard to blame him. When the TV schedule was released prior to the season, the Pacers were slotted for precisely one national TV game. Only the Hawks, Nets, and Magic had it worse; they didn’t get scheduled for any at all.
“There’s a lot of games like that,” Myles Turner told me. “The Mavericks and the Lakers are on national TV, on ESPN. Yeah, they’re big markets, but they’re bottom-five teams in the NBA. It’s just certain teams are on TV every night. It makes you raise an eyebrow—like, ‘Really?’ Here we are kind of ascending, and we have a story behind us, and all that stuff. But we know some people don’t care.”
This is how things have gone for the Pacers all season. They were written off before the first tip. After trading Paul George during the offseason and bringing in 10 new players—including three new starters in Oladipo, Darren Collison, and Bojan Bogdanovic—no one expected much. FiveThirtyEight and USA Today projected them to win 32 games. Sports Illustrated had them finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Pistons, and Magic, among others. Bleacher Report put them even lower, at 12th.
Had I been tasked with the same exercise, I might have suggested they spend the season getting a preemptive jump on offseason vacation plans. It was hard to imagine general manager Kevin Pritchard subtracting PG and adding a bunch of lesser (and less expensive) names and then somehow getting the equation to work so that the Pacers could solve for the playoffs. That is some difficult Moneyball math. But it wasn’t just the complicated calculations that made the Pacers easy to dismiss before they’d even played a game. As preseason academic exercises go, thinking through what they might become wasn’t nearly as interesting as theorizing about Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston. Or Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in Boston. Or Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Indiana’s once-favorite large adult son in OKC. Between the Pacers’ basketball decisions and the attendant narratives, it didn’t seem like there was a lot to get excited about with Indiana.
A lot of us were awfully wrong about that. The Pacers are 46-32 and just had a five-game winning streak snapped (barely) by the Nuggets in Denver. That meeting with Nikola Jokic was part of a brutal slog, during which 12 of their final 16 days of the regular season would be on the road, dumping them into an unlikely postseason appearance that hardly anyone outside Indianapolis—and maybe not that many people inside the city limits, either, if they’re being honest—thought possible.
And yet, despite being the kind of unexpected underdog that usually makes for an easy, feel-good story, the Pacers have been alternately ignored and dismissed this season by fans, the national media, and even their peers. After the Pacers defeated the Kings in Sacramento last week thanks in part to a late 3-pointer by Oladipo, an incredulous Willie Cauley-Stein blamed himself for not stepping out on what “should have been my stunt.” He said “it hurts” because “he should have never got that 3 off.” He made it sound like he couldn’t believe it happened, in part because of his own failures but also because of who victimized him. We have almost a full season worth of evidence that Indiana is good, and even the Kings still can’t believe it when the Pacers beat them.
Some of that lingering skepticism can probably be traced back to aesthetics. The Pacers don’t score high marks on the eye test, and they’re probably not near the top of anyone’s League Pass rankings, either. They might be the least talked-about playoff team. There’s certainly less buzz surrounding them than their potential first-round opponent.
With four games left, they’re currently headed for an intriguing matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that is Indiana’s negative image in nearly every way. The Sixers like to play fast; the Pacers don’t. The Sixers have a higher assist rate than any team but the Warriors; the Pacers have a lower one than all but the Thunder and Blazers. The Sixers play in a big market; the Pacers in a smaller one. The Sixers have countless built-in story lines, from the mystery of Markelle Fultz, to Ben Simmons chasing the Rookie of the Year award without a jump shot, to everything Joel Embiid has ever done, or said, or might be thinking about while he recovers from a face injury that will keep him out at least two weeks. The Process has been one of the most debated and divisive topics in the NBA for years and has calcified the Sixers as part of the league zeitgeist. Meanwhile, Indiana is considered … a pleasant surprise.
At its core, the NBA is entertainment. And as consumers, we are often blinded by blockbusters and enthralled with the latest drama. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. It’s fun to gossip about where LeBron might go in the offseason or how bad things might have gotten between Kawhi and the Spurs. By comparison, the rise of Oladipo and Indiana has been billed as a nice story, but it’s not nearly as easy to slap on a marquee and grab our attention. Before the game in Oakland, two Oracle Arena security guards stationed near the media room were talking about that very thing. One of them noted that the “traffic was light” on his way to work, which prompted the other to reply “that’s ’cause no one wants to see the Pacers.” The Pacers might be only two games back of the Sixers in the standings, but they’re miles behind Philly when it comes to media coverage and the things that tend to make us geek out about the league.
“We do. We hear it,” Thad Young, who spent the first seven seasons of his career in Philly, said about how they’re perceived. “But that’s not the end of the world, either. We like to sneak up on people and win games. It’s kind of our thing.”
What is it about the Pacers that’s kept them in our collective blind spot for so long? And why haven’t they been able to command more attention—or respect?
Whatever hopes the Pacers had this season were tied up in Myles Turner. After dropping in the 2015 NBA draft and getting taken 11th overall by Indiana, Turner showed enough flashes in his first year to make second-team All-Rookie. Then he made a massive jump in his sophomore season. He averaged 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and almost a steal per game while shooting 34.8 percent from 3-point range. It’s rare to find a 6-foot-11 player who can protect the rim and shoot from distance, and it’s even rarer for that player to do it before he could legally buy booze. It got a lot of people around the league excited about him, and when Indiana traded George, the natural assumption was that the Pacers would become Turner’s team.
There is something ironic about the one guy whom everyone expected to be good having an uneven season while so many Pacers that no one expected anything from have flourished. (Turner’s PER, TS percentage, win shares, box-plus minus and VORP have all dipped to varying degrees from a year ago.) That point is not lost on Turner. He said this has been his toughest season and that ending up as “the second and third option has been humbling.” It’s also the first time he’s “felt the grind of the NBA.”
Last season, he played all but one game. This year, he suffered an elbow injury against the Bucks in early January, was outfitted with a bulky brace, and missed nine games. Prior to that, he had 21 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks in the season opener against the Nets—then missed the next seven games with a concussion. When he was finally cleared to play, it took him a while to find a rhythm. He didn’t shoot well in those first few games—he made just 41.6 percent from the floor and the Pacers lost four in a row and five out of eight with him back in the lineup—and it shook his confidence.
Oladipo noticed. He called Turner late one night in November before realizing that picking up the phone wasn’t enough. Before he hung up, Oladipo told Turner he was coming over. Then he drove the roughly 25 miles from his house to Turner’s to talk—at 1 o’clock in the morning. Turner said they “just chopped it up” and called it “a cool turn of events.” The next game, Turner had a season-high 25 points.
That was the beginning of their friendship. Before that, they were just two coworkers in an office full of fresh faces. When I asked Oladipo why he went to those lengths for a teammate he barely knew at the time, he said it was because he went through something similar—first in Orlando, then “a little bit” in Oklahoma. He had been in Turner’s position, trying to play well and battling injuries while nothing went the way he wanted. Those situations weren’t just frustrating. He said it was more like “you kind of eat yourself alive.”
“I try to come back and things aren’t flowing, and no one was there to talk to me,” Oladipo recalled. “No one was there to uplift me. It was something he needed to hear. I just felt like he needed it. I went over there on my own power and decided to talk to him and let him know that we believe in him and we’ve got his back.”
Oladipo told Turner confidence is everything. He would know. “My first couple of years, it definitely humbles you,” he said. If he could get past Orlando and Oklahoma City using him as a trade asset and prove to himself and everyone else how valuable he really was, then he was certain Turner could correct his course. Besides, it’s easy to forget how young Turner is and how much time he has to work on his game. He just turned 22 two weeks ago, and he’s still figuring out where to be on the court and how to process things off it.
When Turner was out with a concussion, he couldn’t use his phone or watch TV, so he started doing puzzles again as he used to when he was a kid. He forgot how much he liked them—especially the Lego Star Wars variety. He’s a self-proclaimed “big Star Wars guy” and has been since he was young. He liked the new movie—precisely for the same reasons that his fellow millennial fanboys didn’t. The parts in The Last Jedi when [SPOILER] Luke wasn’t as reflexively good or innocent as we remembered him made sense to Turner, especially with the way the season was going for him.
“I liked the little dark aspect thrown in there,” Turner said about Skywalker thinking about doing something very un-Jedi-like to his young protégé. “I kind of just think that it shows that everybody is human. Like, in the movies, the depiction of the Jedis and how they do everything the right way and yada yada yada. But in that moment, right there, he’s Luke, but he’s still human, too.”
That part hit Turner the most. Given how his season was going, it was easy to empathize with trying to hold it all together while letting a little bit of his seams show. After a win over the Lakers, he revealed that one of his teammates previously called him “soft.” It bothered him. It also served as motivation and prompted him to be more aggressive and not just settle for jumpers. Against Denver on Tuesday, Turner set a pick and then immediately rolled to the rim for a dunk. Earlier in the year, he might have popped out for an easy, uncontested jumper instead.
About 24 percent of Turner’s shots have come from 3-point range this season. That’s been consistent all year. The rest of his game has changed, though. Before All-Star Weekend, 29.6 percent of his points were gleaned from the midrange and 31 percent from the paint, according to NBA.com/Stats. Since the break, just 21.0 percent of his points have come from the midrange, compared to 37.9 percent from the paint. Put another way, he’s been more aggressive going to the rim when he isn’t shooting 3s—like when he recently victimized poor Cheick Diallo with a vicious dunk.
Turner told me that the crack about him being “soft” absolutely factored into altering his approach. There’s value in him shooting 3-pointers and he’s not going to stop that, but he wants to be more of a paint presence on both ends of the floor. Defensively, he’s third in the league in blocks per game. Offensively, well, if Diallo has to be sacrificed to shut up a coworker, so be it.
Turner insisted that he’s cool with all his teammates—he recently tweeted this is “the most fun” he’s had playing basketball and he “[loves] this group”—but no matter how many times I tried, he still wouldn’t disclose who threw the jab that landed a blow to his confidence. Maybe the shot didn’t hurt as much as the injuries, but it had an effect. When I brought it up, head coach Nate McMillan and Young claimed they never heard about the comment in the first place, while Collison, Oladipo, and Joseph said they didn’t know who made the remark. My money is on Jefferson, who has served as a tough-love mentor for Turner all year and has repeatedly pushed him to assert himself down low. Jefferson described their interactions as “a big brother, little brother relationship” and credited Turner for being “mature in so many ways.”
After practice at USC’s Galen Center in Los Angeles over the weekend, Jefferson beamed that Turner “gives me great advice. He’ll come and say some things to me and I’ll be looking at him like, ‘OK, young fella.’ He’s very mature for his age, especially on the court.”
“He’s still childish off the court.”
“But who wasn’t at 22? I was.”
So, yeah, Jefferson is my bet, though Turner wouldn’t single him or anyone else out. (He said “Al is great” and that he loves being around him.) When I asked whether the person who called him soft meant it or was kidding, Turner described it as a mixture of both. “It was a joke but he was being serious, too,” Turner explained. “I was like, ‘All right, motherfucker. Cool.’ I kind of just turned up my play after that. I’m trying to keep that going. It’s whatever. We have stuff we still want to do.”
Whatever Turner and the Pacers hope to accomplish, the schedule-makers didn’t make it easy on them. The Pacers finish their season by playing six of their last eight games away from home, including a just-completed four-game West Coast swing through Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Denver. Not exactly what you want when you’re jockeying for seeding. “I think the schedule-makers were writing us off, too,” Turner said. (The Bucks are the only other team projected to make the Eastern Conference playoffs that play that many road games to close out the season.)
As Young said, playoff teams generally “aren’t expecting to be on the road this much going toward the end of the season—especially for a long, 10-day road trip.” (At least McMillan let them wear sweatpants instead of suits on the plane as a reward for clinching a playoff spot after beating the Heat at home. They were pretty excited about the sweats.) And when they finally return to Indianapolis on Thursday, their reward is a rematch with the Warriors, who this time will have KD, Klay, and Draymond healthy and on the court.
But in a weird way, there’s a benefit to the late-season gantlet. Between the road trip and their quest to improve to the best possible seed, it’s like the postseason has already begun for the Pacers. Young said those “different atmospheres and environments” have served to focus the Pacers as the playoffs approach. After the Warriors game, Jefferson, who was a DNP-CD that night, launched into a deep dive about various tiebreaker scenarios with Turner and Stephenson. It was the kind of giddy nerd talk that would have been right at home on NBA Reddit had it not unfolded in a professional locker room. “It’s pretty cool to be going through this and being in a playoff seed race,” Oladipo said. “We’re trying to embrace the moment.”
And yet, like a lot of people, the Pacers aren’t quite sure who they are and how they fit together. Even now. As McMillan admitted, when you have 10 new players, “that’s a rebuild. And it wasn’t easy. We’re still finding out who we are as we do things and try things. As we go into this part of the season, trying to finish, we’re still seeing and learning about our group.”
Trying to pinpoint the root of the Pacers’ success this season is no simple task. Oladipo’s metamorphosis from a guy who was traded twice in consecutive seasons into an All-Star (and the heavy favorite to win Most Improved Player) was obviously a major catalyst. But beyond his rise, you have a team that’s good at lots of things but not necessarily great at anything. As of Wednesday, the Pacers were ninth in offensive rating and 12th in defensive rating. They were 13th in true shooting percentage but 19th in rebounding percentage and 28th in assist percentage.
Looking at the numbers is a lot like watching the team: You can stare at them for a while and still not know exactly what to make of it all. The Pacers have been successful with an outmoded style that almost everyone else in the NBA has abandoned. As of Wednesday afternoon, only six teams play at a slower pace, per NBA.com/Stats. The Pacers also lead the league in midrange jumpers by a lot. That isn’t because Indiana hasn’t figured out that three points are worth more than two, or that the league is all about pace and space. The Pacers get it. McMillan knows that teams are practically setting up velvet ropes in the middle of the court and inviting his guys to turn it into their personal VIP area. Other teams feel like they’re winning if the Pacers are making 2s because their opponents on most nights are going to take as many 3s as possible. But when “teams invite you to shoot the 2,” McMillan said, that often leads to a favorable midrange matchup and “if we feel like we have an advantage there, we’ll go that way.”
The best way to describe Pacers basketball and their overarching approach this season is that they just keep at it. They might be plodding at times, but they are persistent—like when they wore down the Warriors after a slow first half last week and won, or when they kept chipping away at the Clippers and overcame a double-digit deficit to pull out a close victory in L.A.
Despite trailing by 16 points in the first half, the #Pacers rallied past the Clippers yesterday for their fifth straight win.— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) April 2, 2018
Game recap & more highlights: https://t.co/fTRq6oOYfK pic.twitter.com/101m3C3FrK
If there were an advanced metric for perseverance, the Pacers would lead the league. That might seem like a hard style to embrace or maintain, but it also makes sense to some of McMillan’s peers from a coaching perspective. Kings head coach Dave Joerger said the Pacers “don’t try to trick you” and instead “come right at you.” Zigging where the rest of the league has chosen to zag has worked for the Pacers.
“I think every team has to play to their strengths,” Steve Kerr said about the Pacers style. “So if you’ve got a bunch of 3-point shooters and you want to launch, and that works for you, great. To me, you just want good shots. What defines a good shot might be different for each team. If you’ve got guys who can consistently make 17-footers, there’s a good chance you’re going to get them the way the game is played these days. Everyone wants to guard the 3-point line. Nobody wants to give up a layup. So if the best shot you’re going to get is a pull-up 17-footer that’s unchallenged and you’ve got good shooters, those are good all day.”
Like a lot of people, Kerr copped to being surprised by the Pacers’ success this season. A year ago, he didn’t think they had “a lot of life to them,” which was a nice way of saying they sucked. “Every team kind of has a life force—you know, an energy, an aura,” Kerr continued. “This team, you can feel it. You watch them on TV and they have some juice. They get after you defensively. They play hard. They’ve got good energy. They’ve got good chemistry. They’re fun to watch.”
The Pacers have stumbled onto something as a unit, perhaps because they weren’t valued much as stand-alone commodities. Pritchard was crushed for not getting enough in return for Paul George and then assembling a team no one else wanted. But in truth, he mixed and matched from the NBA bargain bin and put together a handsome outfit that also affords Indiana flexibility moving forward. The Pacers have a nice core of young players (Collison and Jefferson are the only guys older than 30), and beyond Oladipo—who’s in the first season of a four-year, $85 million deal—they aren’t tethered to any big-money or long-term contracts.
“You put us together,” Collison said, “nobody is going to expect us to do anything because we’ve all been counted out as individuals.”
Outside of Oladipo and Turner, the list of guys who get the most minutes consists mostly of cast-offs—league average, interchangeable, even disposable. The Wizards traded a first-round pick for Bogdanovic at the deadline last season then watched him walk in free agency. The Kings didn’t seem too broken up about letting Collison leave. The Raptors unloaded Cory Joseph for the rights to Emir Preldzic, who is 30 and (probably) a real human. The Thunder didn’t argue about putting Domantas Sabonis in the Paul George trade. Pretty much everyone thought Lance Stephenson was washed (despite his unmatched self-promotion). And Young has spent his entire career being underestimated or dismissed with faint praise.
But the way they see it, being NBA orphans is precisely why they feel so at home in Indiana. As Joseph noted, most of them didn’t get the opportunity in other spots that they have been given with the Pacers. Because they never previously commanded the spotlight, they’re all too happy to share the stage. And here, just like with the national television schedule and the snide remarks from arena workers about how “no one wants to see the Pacers,” they are acutely aware of how they’re perceived as players.
“Shoot, a lot of us have been overlooked our whole lives,” Joseph told me while we chatted after practice one day in San Francisco. Just when I thought he was being overly earnest about it, Joseph cracked a thin smile and shrugged. “Me, I’m coming from Canada,” he said. “I’ve been overlooked a long time.”
While the Pacers were pulling away from the depleted Warriors late in their win at Golden State, a middle-aged dude in a Reggie Miller jersey took the opportunity to taunt the locals in his section just behind the Indiana bench. There was a lot of arm-waving and scoreboard pointing. He seemed pretty proud. Everyone else seemed oblivious. Tough to get Warriors fans to care about the Pacers beating them in a regular-season game without their four best players available. The scene made me wonder what a real win would look like for the Pacers. With the playoffs approaching, what would it take to make people finally notice and give them credit?
Turner and the Pacers might “have stuff we still want to do,” but there aren’t many people betting on them to pull it off in the playoffs. Various oddsmakers have them as a long shot in the postseason, and several league executives I asked dismissed them as a first-round out. That was before Joel Embiid’s latest injury, which could come into play in a Sixers-Pacers first-round clash. But when I circled back with one general manager to see whether he had become more bullish on the Pacers’ prospects, he asked, if you could handpick your opponent, “who else would you rather play?”
The team nobody believed in is still having a hard time getting anyone to believe in them. It’s not so much that people look past the Pacers as they look right through them. The morning before the Warriors game, the Pacers held shoot-around at Equinox, next to the Four Seasons in San Francisco. The basketball court is on the third level, tucked away next to various weight rooms and yoga studios. While several players filed out and into the locker room to get changed, a sweaty bro in a bandanna lingered in the hallway and eventually asked me, “Hey, who are all those tall dudes?” I told him they were the Indiana Pacers. He didn’t say anything else. He just stood there, watching, trying to figure out what to make of it.