Two years ago, the Indiana Pacers’ season hung in the balance. They trailed by double digits at halftime against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of their first-round series, and they needed to make up ground quickly. 

They got some stops and some transition points to close the gap. In the halfcourt, the Cavaliers were trapping Victor Oladipo, but the All-Star guard shook loose for 14 points in the third quarter and 11 in the fourth, finishing with 30 points on 10-for-21 shooting, 12 rebounds, six assists and three steals in 41 minutes.

But it wasn’t enough. Cleveland went on a run to start the final frame, and Indiana went home with a 105-101 loss.  

On Saturday, the Pacers’ season once again hung in the balance. At halftime, they trailed 74-56 in the game and 2-0 in their first-round series against the Miami Heat. 

Indiana fought back by getting stops and running. In the halfcourt, the Heat were switching 1 through 5 — playing Bam Adebayo at “center” is a luxury — but guard Malcolm Brogdon repeatedly found mismatches and made plays. Brogdon scored 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting with seven assists in the second half, finishing with 34 points and 14 assists in 43 minutes.

It felt familiar. The Pacers were within two points early in the fourth quarter, but Miami pushed its lead back to double digits and held on for a 124-115 win.

Indiana was the underdog in this series, and it missed All-Star center Domantas Sabonis, who is sidelined with plantar fasciitis. If Sabonis were active, he’d be freeing shooters with screens, rolling hard to the rim, finding cutters from the elbow and punishing switches in the post. The Pacers didn’t expect to be down 3-0, their season effectively over, but isn’t it more notable that it was Brodgon who almost saved it? 

Oladipo, by the way, had 20 points on 8-for-21 shooting in 34 minutes, and fouled out after shooting 2-for-9 in the second half. He barely played in Game 1 because of an eye injury, and he had 22 points on 5-for-14 shooting, four assists and six turnovers in Game 2. He is 20 months to the day removed from rupturing his quad tendon, and he is eligible for a contract extension in the summer. Thoughts, Russ? 

Brogdon arrived in Indiana in a sign-and-trade with the Milwaukee Bucks on a four-year, $85 million contract, which was widely seen as an overpay. (The Bucks agreed: “He’s great, but for that amount of money, we thought we could have those dollars better spent elsewhere,” co-owner Marc Lasry said.)

In his first 22 games, Brogdon averaged 19.5 points, 7.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds, and an All-Star berth seemed possible. With the ball in his hands, he wasn’t the 50-40-90 guy he was in Milwaukee, but it looked like the Pacers had pulled off a heist, just like they did when they got Oladipo and Sabonis in the initially unpopular Paul George trade. Early in the season, Sabonis told me he saw a parallel between Brogdon’s role change in Indiana and his own.

“I think he’s taking advantage of the freedom and playing to his skill set,” Sabonis said. “I feel like he’s a player who has many more things to his game than what he did in Milwaukee, and here he finally has a chance to show it.”

As a second-round pick that went on to win Rookie of the Year, Brogdon had already shown he was better than people thought. In his fourth season, at 27 years old, perhaps history was repeating itself in all sorts of ways. Indiana wasn’t dominating, but without Oladipo it was 21-10 on Christmas, exceeding expectations on the strength of Brogdon and Sabonis’ chemistry. And with Brogdon running the show, fellow newcomers T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb fit in as well as the front office could have hoped.

“He’s a great point guard,” Indiana wing Doug McDermott said in December. “I know a lot of people didn’t think he was a point guard coming here, but he’s showing that he’s a great point guard.”

McDermott also said that Brogdon “kind of runs everything.” He’d expected Brogdon to be quiet, a sentiment shared by big man Myles Turner, but the 27-year-old turned out to relish his leadership role, joking around on planes and at restaurants and turning serious at game time. The question, back then, was how things would change when Oladipo returned. Turner said that opponents were starting to key in on Brogdon and trap him more, and “once you have another playmaker out there, it takes a lot of the pressure off of him.” The less optimistic perspective was that integrating Oladipo could disrupt Indiana’s rhythm. 

Health issues, however, wound up messing with the Pacers’ rhythm for much of the season anyway. Brogdon dealt with a back injury and a hamstring injury and was sidelined with a quad injury when the season shut down in March. Lamb tore his ACL in February. Oladipo returned in late January, but his shooting was shaky and he didn’t log 30 minutes in a game before the hiatus.

In Orlando, Oladipo’s will-he-or-won’t-he situation made things weird before games even started. The team has a totally different feel with Sabonis out of the picture and Warren emerging. Indiana finished 45-28 after the seeding games, a credit to coach Nate McMillan and the team’s adaptability, but it’s unclear what is next. 

After that loss to the Cavaliers in 2018, the Pacers looked like an up-and-coming team that needed more firepower around Oladipo, their new franchise player. Most observers assumed they’d eventually trade either Turner or Sabonis for another perimeter playmaker. Now they have an abundance of players who handle the ball, and the picture is much more complicated.

They could still move one of the bigs, but they also have to evaluate how Brogdon and Oladipo, who have shared the court for a total of 449 minutes (including scrimmage games and the playoffs), fit next to each other. Sabonis has become the hub of their halfcourt offense, and Warren’s play in the bubble suggests he’s ready for a bigger role. 

Ideally, every team wants multiple creators on the court, especially come playoff time. As the Pacers’ second-half comeback on Saturday showed, it’s hard to hide weak one-on-one defenders (in this case: Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic) when you’re facing a bunch of guys who can make plays off the dribble. There would be risk, however, in offering Oladipo an extension starting at $25 million a season, as he has not consistently shown the same burst he had pre-injury, when he split pick-and-rolls with ease and zoomed to the rim in transition. 

Brogdon, Oladipo, Warren, Sabonis and Turner have only played six games together, hardly enough of a sample to draw meaningful conclusions. Indiana boldly moved on from three-fifths of its starting lineup last offseason and somehow managed to retain its identity as a tough, defense-first, overachieving group. Soon, despite incomplete information, the Pacers will be faced with a difficult decision: Do they make major changes again? 

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