It is becoming apparent that a significant portion of the Pacers' fate this season hinges on Tyreke Evans' right knee — a delicate part that is well-acquainted with surgery and needed a recent injection to enable him to play to his potential.
If that sounds ominous, his performance against Atlanta on Wednesday offers optimism. After missing three of the previous five games, not playing well in the other two and then being listed as "questionable" to play against the Hawks, Evans turned in perhaps his best performance of the season, one that was vital to the Pacers' victory. He hit 7-of-9 shots, including all four 3-pointers, to score 19 points in his 18 minutes, 55 seconds, all while passing out five assists and committing just one turnover.
"That's the guy we felt we were getting," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said following Thursday's practice at the St. Vincent Center. "He's had kind of a roller coaster ride so far this season, but last night he showed what he's capable of doing."
Evans is a backup, but clearly a crucial one. When he has scored 15 points or more this season, the Pacers are 6-0. When he's failed to reach double figures, they are 6-8. The point also could be made that they're 4-0 when he hasn't played at all, but those victories came over Cleveland, New York, Brooklyn, and Washington.
It's one thing to have a capable backup, but it's another to have a backup for the backup. The best option to fill Evans' role behind Victor Oladipo is rookie Aaron Holiday, and while Holiday has shown promise he can't be counted on to produce as much as a healthy Evans. In fact, Holiday is supposed to be a point guard, so pairing him with Cory Joseph leaves the Pacers' second unit undersized in the backcourt.
Evans provides a veteran who can create open shots for himself or teammates, run effective pick-and-rolls with Domantas Sabonis, and defend bigger guards. When he's shooting well from behind the 3-point line, as he did the previous two seasons, he adds another perimeter scoring threat.
The Pacers are 23-12 heading into Friday's game against Detroit, and have a favorable opportunity to finish the month 12-3. But more treacherous paths lie ahead. They play eight of 14 games on the road in January, and play 10 of 14 games against teams that currently have a winning record in March.
Obviously, they'll need every bit of what Evans can do in the coming months if they are to remain among the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.
"It makes a huge difference for us," McMillan said. "When Victor is off the floor, (Evans) is the guy who can create offense for us. Scoring the basketball, passing the basketball...the defense has to pay attention to him and it open things up for your offense."
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Evans has a recent history of issues with his right knee. He underwent an arthroscopic procedure in May of 2015 to remove loose particles, following a season in which he played in 79 games. He bumped knees with New Orleans teammate Kendrick Perkins in a preseason practice the following October, causing a chipped bone that required another surgery. He returned in December, but persistent swelling led to a procedure to replace cartilage in three areas of his knee.
He played just 25 games that season, and missed the start of the following season as well. He was healthy for most of last season in Memphis, although he was held out of a lot of games because the Grizzlies weren't in a win-now mode.
He gives credit for his sound knee last season to two platelet-rich plasma injections, one before it began and another during the All-Star break. He didn't feel another one was necessary before this season.
Joel Embiid forced him to reconsider when he fell on Evans' right knee during the Pacers' victory at Philadelphia on Dec. 14. Evans sat out the next game against New York, was ineffective in the following two against Cleveland and Toronto (combining for nine points on 4-of-14 shooting) and then sat out games against Brooklyn and Washington.
The trip to Brooklyn enabled Evans to visit Dr. Riley Williams, an orthopedic surgeon in New York City who had performed previous surgeries on his knee. Evans received another PRP injection there, a procedure in which blood is taken from another area of the body, usually an arm, and spun at high speed to separate the components. Afterward, the platelet-rich plasma is injected back into the knee.
After gaining confidence in the knee in a couple of practice sessions, he declared himself ready to go again in Atlanta.
"I felt a lot better," he said. "I was moving better, running faster...I felt great."
Evans had been listed with a bruised knee in the games he missed, but the severity of his condition had not been mentioned to anyone in the media. Even his teammates were only vaguely aware of it. Although he interacts comfortably with the other players, he's quiet by nature and not prone to making excuses for himself.
"We knew it was something, but he didn't really specify what it was," Myles Turner said. "He played through it; he was a trouper."
That's why his performance on Wednesday came as a surprise. He looked like a new player, one that had been seen on only a few occasions this season — such as when he scored 19 points at San Antonio on Oct. 24, or had 23 points and 10 rebounds while hitting 5-of-7 3-pointers against Miami on Nov. 16, or scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds against Washington on Dec. 11.
Other times, he was a mystery. He often shot poorly, almost routinely missing defended layup attempts around the basket, and some of his passes seemed to have no discernible target. Becoming acquainted with new teammates and alternating between starting and playing off the bench contributed to his unsettling roller coaster ride.
Wednesday, he seemed a perfect fit for the second unit. He not only knocked down shots, he penetrated for layups and dished off for other easy shots. Even his shooting form was better, because he had more lift on his jumper.
McMillan showed ultimate confidence in him during a timeout with 3:44 left in the game, when the Pacers led by eight points. He called for Evans simply to create a play for himself, which he did by taking the inbound pass, dribbling up the right side of the court and pulling up for a 3-pointer with 3:37 remaining.
"It was for him to go — attack," McMillan said. "The guy was backing off of him."
Evans had been the only Pacers player failing to meet expectations on a consistent basis this season. But if he can at least approximate his performance in Atlanta going forward, the Pacers' rotation appears complete. The starters have hit a groove since Oladipo returned from his sore knee and adjusted his style of play to incorporate the others, and the bench unit of Sabonis, Joseph, Doug McDermott, and Evans is one of the best in the NBA when all are healthy.
"It's almost scary," Darren Collison said. "One through eight, one through nine, anybody can score the ball."
They can even go 12 deep, if necessary. Holiday, Kyle O'Quinn, and TJ Leaf all have been productive at various times when given opportunities. But regardless of who he's playing with off the bench, Evans and his knee remain instrumental to their fortunes.
"He's definitely a focal piece of what we're trying to do," Thaddeus Young said. "It's 10 times better having him healthy."
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