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Magic vs. Pacers preview: A battle of two unbeaten bubble teams

Magic face early bubble MVP T.J. Warren and the-ones-who-got-away (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis)

Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

The Magic are 2-0 since the season restarted, shelling out a combined 260 points in the first two games.

Orlando swapped playoff-seeding spots (from eighth to seventh) after beating the Nets in the first game, and then beat an exciting but inconsistent Kings team by 16 points in the second game. Orlando’s third game during this eight-game regular season finale pits the Magic against the Indiana Pacers.

Personally, I have a special distaste for the Pacers. That’s not really fair to Indiana, but watching them succeed, thanks in part to two former Magic players on the roster, stirs up a special kind of ire in my gut. The kind that’s illogical, unreasonable, and still 100-percent present.

Naturally, the two players I’m talking about are Orlando’s 2013 No. 2 overall selection Victor Oladipo and Orlando’s 11th overall pick in 2016, Domantas Sabonis. Again, though, me hating the Pacers doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because Indiana didn’t even acquire the former Magic duo through a direct deal with Orlando. Oladipo and Sabonis were traded by the Magic in a 2016 draft-night deal that sent Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to just-then-drafted Sabonis to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka.

I’m not here to get into that trade, but boy, I’m having to stop myself from ranting about it. Whatever. Oklahoma City went on to trade Oladipo and Sabonis to Indiana for Pacers’ franchise player Paul George.

Sabonis has been a key figure in the Pacers’ success since they acquired him. He’s improved year to year, culminating with this season: he’s first on the team in minutes, second on the team in scoring, field goals attempted, field goals made, field-goal percentage, first (by miles) in rebounding and even tied for second in assists.

For some context, Sabonis and Nikola Jokic are the only two NBA players 6-foot-10 or taller who averaged at least five assists per game this season. Sabonis’ playmaking ability out of the post shouldn’t be a huge surprise to any NBA fans who’ve been around for a bit, because his last name should conjure memories of his dad, Arvydas Sabonis. Arvydas is a former center for the Blazers and widely regarded as one of the best big-man passers ever. For a treat, please watch the subsequent video...

Moving on — Sabonis is versatile and highly-skilled, but part of what makes the Pacers click is how he fits with the rest of Indiana’s offense.

Former Suns forward TJ Warren leads the Pacers in scoring at nearly 19 per game. He nearly tripled that figure in the Pacers’ restart opener, dropping a career-high 53 points in a win against the Sixers. He followed that up on Monday with 34 points and 11 rebounds while leading the Pacers over the Wizards. Over the two games, Warren has made 34 of 55 field goal attempts (61.2 percent). (Another brief aside: it’s interesting to note that Indiana acquired Warren and a Suns second-round pick for cash as a 2019 draft-night deal, essentially providing Phoenix with cap relief by absorbing the final three years and $35 million on his contract.)

Warren is taking fewer threes this season but is holding steady with last year’s overall, per-game shot attempts. He’s making 7.5 out of 14 shots this season but attempting 1.2 fewer threes per game, and the adjustment has led to his shooting percentage spiking nearly five percent from last year’s figure. While Warren hasn’t proven to be much of a consistent threat from the outside — he never averaged more than .06 made threes per game until last season — this year it seems like he’s found a balance that works for him.

So, Warren is shooting fewer threes this season, and I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the Pacers’ locker room to point to a reason why — but I do know the drop in long-distance shots fits with Indiana’s recent (apparent) offensive philosophy. Last season, the Pacers finished next-to-last in made and attempted threes with 779 and 2081, respectively, and some context to take it further: the last time Indiana finished in the league’s top 20 for made threes in a season was 2015-16.

This year, the Pacers are next-to-last in made threes with 648 and last in attempted threes with 1787. (Context: Houston leads the league in attempts with 2832. That’s a total difference of 1045 and breaks down to 16 more attempts per game for the Rockets.) It’s not like the players on the roster can’t hit long-distance attempts — Indiana ranks 12th in three-point percentage. Guard Justin Holiday hits the deep ball at an impressive 42-percent mark on nearly 4.5 attempts per game, forward Doug McDermott drills threes at a 45-percent clip on four attempts per game, while Aaron Holiday hits at 40 percent and Jeremy Lamb and Myles Turner both shoot around 33 percent on at least four tries per game. Nonetheless, collectively, the Pacers seem to be bucking the league-wide, long-distance shooting trend.

I haven’t talked much about the gem of Indiana’s offseason — Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon was a restricted free agent last summer with Milwaukee, but when the Pacers offered him four years and $85 million, the Bucks decided to ship him off to Indiana in exchange for one first- and two second-round picks.

Milwaukee was cash-strapped with some key guys’ situations in flux, so I understand letting him walk — to an extent. They decided to pay Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez instead. But when you look back at Brogdon’s season last year, it’s hard to imagine any team willfully moving him out of town. Brogdon became just the eighth player, ever, to join the 50/40/90 club — 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line. The other members: Reggie Miller, Larry Bird, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzski and Mark Price.

His shooting splits are down this season — 44/31/89 — but he gets a pass for the dips. He’s assumed the bulk of the playmaking responsibilities for the Pacers, even though running the offense was something he rarely did with Milwaukee, as the Bucks opted to let Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo initiate most of the offensive possessions. Any difficulties accompanying this new dynamic have been compounded by Oladipo’s absence (Oladipo played just 13 games this season), but still, the results have been overtly positive. Brogdon’s posting the NBA’s 10th-best assist percentage at 35.9 (nearly 12 points more than his previous career high) and has the best turnover percentage of those top-ten players at 9.7. He’s dishing out seven assists per game and has the best assist-to-turnover ratio (2.98) in the league of point guards that play at least 30 minutes per game.

While teams around the league are shooting more from deep and playing faster, the Pacers are opting to shoot fewer threes and eat up the clock. They’re using an average of 99.05 possessions, 24th in the league, which is a full six-plus possessions less than the NBA’s leader in pace of play, the Milwaukee Bucks. The Pacers can afford to grind out games because of their stifling team defense. Indiana sits at seventh in the league in defensive rating with a 107.7 mark and fourth in points allowed per game at 107.5.

The Pacers have two players in the NBA’s top 25 for defensive win shares — Sabonis at No. 10 with 3.3 and Turner at No. 21 with 2.8 (Context: Milwaukee has five players in the top 20 — LOL). Turner led the NBA in blocks per game last season with 2.7 and hasn’t finished lower than third in blocks per game since 2015-16, his rookie season. He ranks fourth so far this season, swatting 2.2 shots in each outing.

Orlando, seeking a third straight win in bubble play, lost both regular season matchups against the Pacers this season, once by seven points and once by five points, though the Pacers didn’t have Turner in one game and didn’t have Brogdon in the other. The Pacers are expecting the return of Oladipo, who didn’t play Monday against the Wizards in the first game of the Pacers’ back-to-back.

Prior to the restart, I would have guessed this would be a low-scoring affair, but the long layoff doesn’t seem to have affected offenses the way I expected. So who knows?

*All stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats and basketballreference.com