The Pacers might have been an unsavory first-round matchup for any of the East’s top seeds. Then Victor Oladipo surprisingly opted out of the restart in early July and, suddenly, a matchup with the Pacers seemed far less daunting.
But then a report Monday indicated that there was “growing belief” that Oladipo could attempt to play in the NBA restart after engaging in Indiana’s early practices inside the bubble.
A healthy Oladipo makes a potential Celtics-Pacers matchup far more intriguing and his status is noteworthy because, entering the restart, the Pacers currently project as Boston’s most likely first-round opponent (a 43.7 percent chance, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index).
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If everyone is healthy, the Celtics would still be heavy favorites against Indiana. It’s a little bit more of a toss up if Oladipo is healthy and Kemba Walker’s knee is an issue.
But without Oladipo, Indiana would still have talent, especially if Malcolm Brogdon can get back to full health, especially after contracting COVID-19 during the break. A Pacers team that ranked 17th in offensive rating and 13th in net rating before the season paused remains a vulnerable foe, especially without Oladipo’s offensive talents.
For Indiana, still stung by watching Paul George shuffle off to LA, Oladipo’s initial decision leaves the team pondering an uncertain future, particularly with Oladipo set to be a free agent after the 2020-2021 season.
The Pacers split two meetings with Boston this season, with Brogdon keying a December victory while Oladipo was still rehabbing. The Celtics, though, withstood Oladipo’s best performance of his brief comeback while emerging with a win in Indiana right before the season paused in early March.
The Pacers are not devoid of talent, leaning heavy on a frontcourt of first-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. But the absence of Oladipo would put pressure on players like T.J. Warren and Brogdon to shoulder the offensive burden. Suddenly it feels a lot like last year’s playoff team that Boston swept out of the playoffs in the opening round.
The Pacers had the seventh best defense in the league before the break, but they simply don’t have the offensive firepower to hang with the East’s top dogs in a seven-game series. Coach Nate McMillan did a commendable job keeping his team competitive, especially without Oladipo and Brogdon. But the team simply doesn’t have the horses to truly contend in the restart without Oladipo.
The bigger question for Indiana is what the future looks like and, after he opted out to the restart, it’s fair to wonder if Oladipo is eager to be in Indiana deep into the future.
PREDICTIONS FOR CELTICS-PACERS PLAYOFF SERIES
Chris Forsberg: It’s hard to see how this wouldn’t be a 2019 replay if the Celtics and Pacers meet up in Round 1. The Oladipo-less Pacers simply don’t have the top-end talent to hang with with the East elite. Indiana’s size has rarely bothered Boston.
The Pacers are the most agreeable foe for the East’s No. 3 seed and the only question would be whether Indiana could steal a game in a series. Boston might even get some added motivation in a matchup given the Indiana connections for players like Gordon Hayward, Romeo Langford, and Carsen Edwards.
Prediction: Celtics in 4 games (If Oladipo plays, let's say Celtics in 5.)
A. Sherrod Blakely: Indiana's style of play will make this a hard-fought series. With or without Victor Oladipo (knee) who is reportedly on the fence about rejoining the Pacers in the NBA's Orlando, Fla., bubble, Boston's edge in overall talent will be too much for the scrappy Pacers to overcome.
Prediciton: Celtics in 6 games
DJ Bean: The Pacers really could have been a dark horse in the East, but with no Oladipo, I can safely say a Celtics-Pacers series would be the least scared I've ever been in my life. C's would sweep them again.
Prediction: Celtics in 4 games