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T.J. Warren’s injury puts Pacers’ starters down by a man — again

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Wings are overrated, right? RIGHT!?!

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

After missing the entire preseason slate with right-foot plantar fasciitis and appearing pained at times in four starts before being sidelined for Thursday’s 119-99 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers with left-foot soreness, T.J. Warren will undergo surgery to repair a small left navicular stress fracture, the team announced in a press release.

A specific timeline for his return hasn’t been set, with the team instead indicating he’ll be out in indefinitely. This marks the second procedure Warren will undergo for a stress fracture, with the first coming in 2016 while he was a member of the Phoenix Suns, though — as was the case with his earlier diagnosis of plantar fasciitis — it came on his right foot. Notably, though last season’s leading-scorer tallied 17 points on 53 percent shooting in his most recent outing against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, he could be seen hop-stepping on his way to the bench during a timeout with under 3:00 minutes to play in the first half after visibly struggling to hit the brakes in transition.

From there, the 27-year-old forward played 14-consecutive minutes coming out of halftime before later fouling out in the fourth quarter and emerging from the loss with foot soreness.

“They’re figuring it out,” new head coach Nate Bjorkgren told Fox Sports Indiana ahead of Thursday’s game of the injury. “T.J. wants to play so bad. He wants to be out there. That’s the kind of guy he is. That’s why I love him. ...They’re going to keep monitoring it.”

It’s a tough setback for Warren, who scored 30 or more points in four of his six seeding games in the bubble and appeared poised to build on the momentum he had gained from both the four-spot and the three-point line, despite his regression against increased defensive attention during the playoffs. In his first four games of 2020-21, Warren averaged 15.5 points and 3.5 rebounds while at times appearing hampered defensively and searching for comfortability from his more natural mid-range, taking less than half of his shots at the rim or as threes (49 percent), compared to 64 percent in Orlando.

From a team standpoint, the injury stretches the Pacers even thinner at their thinnest position, leaving only Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott and Kelan Martin, who struggled in limited minutes against the Cavaliers, to provide mobile, lateral size against opposing stretch-fours. As such, and given that Aaron Holiday has been called on now to start in place of both Victor Oladipo and Warren, expect the team to continue to lean on smaller three-guard lineups at least until Jeremy Lamb returns, with Malcolm Brogdon checking bigger wings. On the season, Indiana thus far is plus-17 in 20 minutes with Aaron, Oladipo, and Brogdon playing together in tandem.

With fewer options to downsize at the four, Warren’s absence also puts increased pressure on the Turner-Sabonis pairing to work against teams showcasing multi-talented forwards with size, such as February match-ups with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant. In 19 minutes, the Pacers got outscored by 16 points per 100 possessions against Boston when Turner and Sabonis were on the floor together at the same time as only one of Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, and Robert Williams III.

Overall, for a starting lineup that logged just 86 minutes of playing time together last season, the ability to jell and grow together is once again down by a man — creating a delicate balance with regard to possibly leaning more heavily on Victor Oladipo, who is managing his own injury history while currently leading the team in usage rate (25 percent) without taking on increased load from Warren.

Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojanrowski, Warren is expected to miss “a significant portion of the regular season.”