After a grueling regular season, the Indiana Pacers find themselves in a spot that they are unaccustomed to. Quite literally, actually. The Pacers finished with the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, meaning they will play in the first-ever Eastern Conference play-in game on Tuesday. No team has ever been in this position before, as this is the first season that features the play-in tournament in this format.
The Pacers will take on the Charlotte Hornets in a win-or-go-home game. The victor will take on the loser of the other Eastern Conference play-in game, Boston versus Washington, on Thursday. The losing team will enter the draft lottery, their season will be over. It’s a high leverage game, which makes every detail of the battle interesting.
During the regular season, the Hornets won two of the three meetings between the two teams, including an impressive 17-point win in April. They looked like the better team in head-to-head matchups during the regular season.
But this isn’t the regular season. While it isn’t technically the playoffs, the games will mirror a playoff atmosphere and feature more postseason-esque strategies. Pacers All-Star center Domantas Sabonis noted this just after the conclusion of the Pacers’ regular season on Sunday. “Every game is different. Especially this game, it’s basically like a playoff game — game seven I would say,” he said. “They’re going to have a lot of scouting. They might play us different… [they] could double me. We just have to be ready for everything and for every outcome.”
What the Pacers need to be ready for is strong play from the Hornets’ backcourt. Charlotte has a three-headed monster of lethal ball handlers — DeVonte’ Graham, LaMelo Ball, and Terry Rozier — that all gave the blue and gold fits at various times throughout the season.
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Graham and Rozier both have become tremendous spot-up shooters, they both had an effective field goal percentage over 58% on these shots. That’s how they killed the Pacers this season. Rozier hit 5/8 triples in a three-point Charlotte win over Indiana back in January, and Graham shot 4/9 from deep on two separate occasions against the blue and gold. They both were able to get free from deep often.
When Graham was in the game, the Hornets outscored the Pacers by 40 points across three matchups. His shiftiness and accurate shooting from long range has caused Indiana problems, and his underrated passing ability makes it difficult to throw complex coverages at him. What makes him even more difficult to contain is that he takes over three pull-up triples per game. He can beat a defense in many ways, and the Pacers have yet to figure out how to slow him down. They will have to if they want to take down the Hornets.
“Obviously, they have a lot of guys that can really get hot,” Pacers forward Oshae Brissett said of the Hornets. Rozier and Graham are two of those guys. “They’re a great team,” he added.
LaMelo Ball, on the other hand, presents a whole different set of challenges to the blue and gold. While he isn’t quite the shooter the other two Charlotte guards are, he is supremely talented in many other areas of the game. He is an excellent rebounder for a perimeter player, which happens to be an area of the game that the Pacers struggle in, and he sees the game at a high level. That allows him to create buckets for his teammates and get many steals each night. He impacts winning in a variety of ways.
His 16 point, six rebound, and seven assist performance against Indiana in January was effortless. If Ball is controlling the game, the Hornets offense is typically gelling. What’s more, he is a solid connector for Charlotte second units — he makes bench groups much tougher to contain. When he is at his best, Ball is a game changer.
The Hornets offensive pace is much faster with Ball in the game. Their possessions are nearly a full second shorter when he’s on the floor — he gets the team running, both in their sets and in transition. And that transition game is where the purple and teal become deadly. They finished fourth in the NBA in points per game in transition this season, and they were top-five in effective field goal percentage on fast breaks. The Hornets are lethal when they run, and Ball is a big part of that.
“They’re just really good. They play fast, they’ve got a lot of high level scorers,” Pacers guard T.J. McConnell said of the Hornets. “The last time they came to [Indianapolis], I think from start to finish just really outplayed us. We’ve got to come out and be extremely ready, do what we do. Move the ball, be disruptive on defense, and get out and go.”
Defense will be key for the Pacers if they want to slow down the Hornets backcourt. The blue and gold were able to hold Charlotte to fewer than 110 points in two of the three battles between the squads, but both teams have increased their pace over the course of the season. Holding the Hornets to a lower total again will be more challenging.
Indiana’s defense has been inconsistent this season. They play an aggressive defensive style, and at times it guides the Pacers. But if often crushes them. Against a volatile offense like Charlotte, they will have to be on their A-game defensively.
It’s likely that the Pacers will put extra pressure on Hornets ball-handlers. That strategy could throw Charlotte guards off their game and force errors. But it could also open up space for cutters and shooters away from the play. It’s crucial that Indiana puts a meaningful emphasis on their off-ball defense — otherwise, the Pacers disruptive strategy might just be their downfall.
“They just had us scrambling on defense,” Sabonis said of the regular season matchups between the Hornets and Pacers. “[Monday], we’re going to prepare for them defensively. We’ve just got to be the aggressors in transition.”
Defense will be slightly more difficult for the Pacers with Myles Turner out. He’s the Pacers best defender, but he’s still dealing with a foot injury. Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren are out for Indiana as well, but Gordon Hayward won’t play for Charlotte. Injuries will dramatically change the way this game is played.
The Turner absence will be particularly crippling for the blue and gold as Charlotte loves to attack the basket — they ranked eighth in drives per game this season. Only five teams passed out of rim attacks more often than the Hornets, so they still are lower in the rankings when it comes to shots off of drives. But without Turner, the Pacers will have a harder time slowing down Charlotte when they get into the paint.
Thankfully, the Pacers should still win the interior battle. This is perhaps where Indiana can get the largest advantage for either team in this game. They have Domantas Sabonis, an All-Star who has been on a tear as of late, and the Hornets don’t have a good answer for his skillset.
“They’re a tough, physical team. We’re going to have to win the interior,” Hornets Head Coach James Borrego said of the Pacers earlier this season. “This is one area that we’ve always had to battle against with them is on the interior with Sabonis and Turner. They’re big, they’re physical. I thought we did a much better job in the second game of protecting the paint.”
Sabonis averaged 17.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game against the Hornets this season. He was capable of forcing Charlotte big men — such as Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo — to defend him and his creation ability out on the perimeter, which opened up the paint for his teammates. When Sabonis was guarded by smaller players he was able to put them under the basket and score with ease — 16 of his 21 made shots this season against the Hornets were dunks or layups. He will be the focal point of the Pacers offense in this play-in game, and rightfully so.
The Lithuanian big man gives the Pacers the opportunity to play inside-out, something he, and the team, did well against the Hornets. Over one-third of Sabonis’ assists against the Hornets this season led to three-pointers, he punished the purple and teal squad for giving him extra defensive attention. His unique skillset makes him hard to contain, the Hornets will have to decide what type of shots they will try to cut off.
“They’re a really physical team and they’ve got a lot of shooters,” Hornets wing Miles Bridges said of the Pacers. “[We have to] make sure their shooters don’t get a lot of open shots.”
If Borrego is able to come up with a game plan that both slows down both Sabonis and the Pacers shooters, a group headlined by Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, and Malcom Brogdon (who is questionable to play), then driving lanes will be open. The Hornets will be so spread out trying to defend inside-out that, should they succeed, Indiana will be able to attack the paint at will.
Caris LeVert and Brogdon, if he plays, have both been effective when taking the ball to the rim against a spread out defense. They finished 17th and 16th, respectively, in drives per game this season and were able to punish broken defenses. Both of them can pass well, too, so the Hornets will still have to be cognizant of shooters even when LeVert or Brogdon have an open path to the basket.
Essentially, thanks to Sabonis’ multi-dimensional skillset, the Hornets will have to give up something. It might be post ups, it might be threes from above the break, it might be secondary drives. But Charlotte will have to play an incredible game on defense to cut off all of the Pacers options.
There’s a reasonable chance the Charlotte backcourt and Indiana frontcourt have equal impacts and essentially nullify each other. That would make both starting units similarly effective, which would make the bench clashes key in this game.
Projecting the Pacers’ second unit is difficult thanks to the number of injuries the team is dealing with. That bench group could feature McConnell, Edmond Sumner, McDermott, and Goga Bitadze. It could also be comprised of McDermott, Kelan Martin, and JaKarr Sampson. There is still a lot up in the air on the health front for the blue and gold.
If the Pacers do get a few players back, they likely have a slight advantage off the bench. The Hornets reserve group features Graham, Zeller, Malik Monk, and Biyombo. Graham could have a tremendous shooting night and make the Charlotte bench extremely effective, but the Pacers (healthy) second unit simply features more talented players. Injuries could, however, change the dynamic of both team’s rotations.
Ultimately, these teams are near equals on paper. There is a reason they finished with practically identical records this season. This contest may come down to the little things, such as in-game adjustments or perfect player rotations. The minutiae will matter a ton in a game that is essentially a game seven, as Sabonis mentioned.
“It’s always a battle when you play against them,” Zeller said of the Pacers.
One thing that will be a benefit for the Pacers is that they have homecourt advantage, the game will be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Well, it should be an edge for the blue and gold, but they went 13-23 at home this season. They stunk it up in front of their fans.
Conventional wisdom says that playing at home is a benefit, though, and Justin Holiday agrees. “The big advantage to me is not having to travel. So I’d rather be at home, be comfortable in your own house before you have to go to the game,” he said. “It will be nice to play that game at home, to be in front of [our] fans.”
Perhaps something that small could tip the scales in the Pacers favor. These two teams are very even in terms of talent and both have clear ways they can get the upper hand, so Indiana will take any advantage they can get. This do-or-die game could go either way, so they Pacers will have to be at or near their best in order to get a win. If they don’t, the season will be over far before they want it to end.