The Pacers are gearing up to reboot the 2019-20 regular season in hopes of picking up where they left off in early March.
Remember early March?
Sure it seems like three years ago instead of three months, but when we last saw the Pacers they had just suffered a 114-111 loss to the Celtics after a fourth-quarter fade erased a strong effort through the first three quarters. Despite the frustrating loss in their last game, the Pacers were trending in the right direction after winning six of their last eight games with Victor Oladipo finding his game legs while continuing to up his workload.
VO’s health was the monster variable hanging over the whole season. In fact, Kevin Pritchard managed the team’s expectations before the first game by acknowledging the patience everyone needed to wait on Vic’s return.
The season would be broken up into three parts, according to Pritchard. The first half of the season, when Vic was expected to remain out while rehabbing the torn quad tendon in his knee.
The second phase of the season would be when Vic returned and started playing restricted minutes in hopes of building up to a stronger role for the playoffs. We never made it to the third part of the season, but from Vic’s return on Jan. 29 until the season suspended on March 10, part two was going as well as expected.
Vic wasn’t himself, but also wasn’t afraid to take big shots (including in his first game back). He didn’t have the burst or bounce but gradually his game was rounding into shape. Now that he’s had time off to recover from that six week stretch of work, one would think he’d be in better shape to play in Orlando. But questions remain
Would Vic have made it through the end of the season and playoffs? Obviously can’t answer, but he’s still not set on returning now and his knee health has to be a factor. If he does show up to play, I’d expect VO to be ready to go, which will be great news for the Pacers.
Vic was far from the only story for the Pacers this year as the rest of the roster showed up big during the first part of the season to make Vic’s rehab worthwhile. Malcolm Brogdon took control as a strong leader for the Pacers and if anything was good about the season suspension, it was that it gave Brogdon a chance to rest.
The reliable point guard had battled several dings and seemed to be at the point where he was going to have to deal with a balky left quad until the season end. The silver lining of the time off was recently tarnished when reports surfaced that Brogdon tested positive for COVID-19. Assuming many good factors all fall in the NBA’s favor, the timing of Brogdon’s test should allow him to remain ready to begin play in Orlando.
So while Vic was trending in the right direction, Brogdon was going the other way while dealing with injury issues. But another key component for the Pacers was trending positive.
The pairing of Myles Turner and Domas Sabonis was finding its stride after the All-Star break. And really, we’re talking about Turner finding his stride in a more subordinate role offensively. While Turner’s offensive opportunities remained spotty, he was starting to find his spots and attack more comfortably. In his last seven games, Turner was averaging almost 14 points and 8 rebounds per game will still adding over 3 blocks.
As for TJ Warren, the sweet scoring forward was neither trending up nor down, just remaining steady as a rock. Warren was a revelation on the defensive end and a pleasure to watch on the offensive end. He quietly won the hearts and minds of all hoops-loving Pacers fans with his incredible ability to get buckets a wide variety of ways.
The Pacers pick up in Miami with a 39-26 record, good for fifth place in the East where they are sandwiched between Miami and Philadelphia in a tight race for the 4-5-6 seeds. After stumbling out of the gate at 1-3 in October, the Pacers were 12-4 in November thanks to separate wins streaks of 3, 4 and 5 games.
The remained steady until Vic’s return which initially was a problem. After beating the Bulls in Vic’s first game back, the Pacers dropped their next six games while trying to get used to a not ready for prime time VO who needed to play limited minutes, despite his limited game. But after beating the Bucks (without Giannis) right before the All-Star break, the Pacers returned from the break in better shape to start pointing toward a strong finish.
While the COVID-19 health of all of the players and coaches will be a constant variable for the Pacers, the only other question mark to pop up is Justin Holiday’s willingness to play. Like David Bertans for the Wizards, J. Holiday may have a variety of reasons for not playing, but his pending free agency would be the tipping point for his decision if he decides to stay home. He’s earned his way into the NBA’s middle class and a contract that should come along with his great play. If he’s not available, the Pacers will certainly miss the impact he brings to the rotation off he bench.
The other big questions surrounding the playing (not pandemic) health of key players should no longer be a concern, save for Vic who will remain shaky until we see the ol’ electric Vic running up and down the floor. Again, the NBA is restarting the season while Florida and other parts of the U.S. continue dealing with a pandemic...but, if the league does in fact get back to basketball, the Pacers should be ready to make the most of their opportunity to continue playing.