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NBA: Miami Heat at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

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These Indiana Pacers were free to be themselves. That’s why they’re overachieving

A franchise that once was anchored by a certain identity thrived by tossing that all out and just playing loose.

A week before the 2018 NBA Playoffs began, Indiana Pacers fans were treated to a sight they’d seen many times: a David West wide open mid-range jumper. He missed, but this was the type of shot that spawned (and arguably doomed, in a way) the bruising, defensive-minded Pacers of the Paul George era.

Ironically, West’s midrange game has found a home with the Warriors, who pushed the NBA towards modernity by cranking up the pace and 3-pointers en-route to two championships in three years. These days, they’re shooting more midrange jumpers than ever, with scorching accuracy, a reminder that the past can become the future as fast as the future can dismantle the present.

Today’s Pacers aren’t quite as efficient from midrange, but they’ve benefited from taking a similar approach.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After flexing their muscles in a shock 18-point beatdown in Game 1, the Pacers will have the same opportunity that West, George, and Hibbert had six years ago: to walk into a series against LeBron James’, punch his team in the mouth four times out of seven, and demand he take them seriously.

When Paul George was traded from Indiana to the Thunder this summer for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, nobody could imagine the Pacers being in this position. Their rise wasn’t calculated like The Process, or hyped like the Timberwolves. The Pacers were supposed to be bad.

Then Oladipo bolted through the door, becoming an All-NBA caliber talent out of nowhere and putting Indiana’s apocalyptic predictions to rest.

The trade unburdened all parties. George, freed from having to be the first option, is now wreaking defensive havoc in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, Oladipo, free to be the first option, is doing the same thing for the Pacers. The cloud of uncertainty of George’s future has been replaced with the energy of Oladipo, who sniffs out interceptions and zips from baseline to baseline like electricity running through a cord.

While the rest of the league strains to replicate the same shots their opponents are determined to stop, the Pacers have also freed themselves from that rat race. Only the Knicks took more shots from mid-range than the Pacers this season. Indiana took just over 22 said shots per game, which is more than three times as many as the Rockets take.

In pick and rolls, Oladipo considers every option, optimal or not, creating an impossible puzzle for the defense. He can shoot from three, making it inadvisable to go under on picks. When big men help, he is just as liable to pull up from 18 feet as he is to surge to the rim, forcing a commitment from the defense every step of the way. Myles Turner, Oladipo’s primary pick-setter, also shoots beyond the arc, a few steps within it, and at the rim -- he isn’t finishing particularly well in the latter area, but seven-footers in the paint naturally attract attention.

Combine the modern NBA’s configuration with OIadipo’s pick-and-roll versatility, and the Pacers can always find a shot. Their ethos -- and success -- lies in the fact that they’re encouraged to take the first open shot they see. Ironically, that’s the same mantra that revolutionized the NBA under Mike D’Antoni and the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, just with any shot instead of primarily long shots.

It also furthers the scorn the Pacers receive when analyzing their playoff chances. Unconventional ideas, as those Suns will remind you, are often treated like gimmicks that’ll flatten in a playoff atmosphere. Sometimes, they do. Sometimes, they don’t.

In the end, talent is what flattens everything out, and that happens to be another area in which the Pacers are underestimated. To watch Oladipo this season, his sky-high usage rate, his wet jumper, his Russell Westbrook-ian tenacity that was never shown in his previous stops, is to wait for the other shoe to drop. Regression, in the age of analytics, is always priced into high-level performances, but more often than not, we use it as a cover for things we couldn’t have predicted.

In January, when Oladipo returned from a right knee injury and shot just 29 percent from three for the next 30 games, the assumption was that order had been restored. It turns out he was merely slumping -- he shot 40 percent from three in his final 10 games of the season. And while Oladipo’s usage rate is certainly too high, it feels gargantuan because it’s still hard to imagine he is a star equipped to carry that load.

The Pacers’ lopsided dependence on a first-time All-Star running the pick and roll -- they finish possessions with the roll man more than any team in the NBA -- certainly warrant questions. Can such a simplistic offense hold up in the playoffs? Can they play so freely when an opponent is more prepared for it?

Yet even this can be spun as an advantage. How do you defend a team that thrives doing what everybody else tries not to do? Do you merely cede those shots, allowing them to play their game? Trying to take them out of their game means playing on their terms, helping off 3-point shooters to stop what are technically worse shots. That seems backwards.

The important thing to know about the Pacers is that while they thrive on mid-range shots, it’s not their only gear. Between Oladipo, Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and Thaddeus Young, they can certainly space the floor. After adding 10 new rotation pieces this season, they’re able to shift entities as fast as they shift lineups. They’ve ran as fast as Oladipo and Collison can go, and they’ve plodded as slowly as Al Jefferson and Sabonis. They assaulted the rim in January, and now they’re a defensive-minded mid-range hive filled with 3-point shooters. Making the quick adjustments necessary in a tight playoff series is something this team has actually done all season.

Paul George’s Pacers, unlike Oladipo’s, were grounded by a sense of identity, yet these new Pacers haven’t floated around rudderless without one. Rather, they’ve become comfortable with being different versions of themselves. That kind of fluidity can benefit a playoff team, even one going against the terror that is LeBron James. That showed in their Game 1 win.

The playoffs are also clarifying. The Pacers, nascent and unrestrained, might just find out who they really are.


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