T.J. McConnell
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Pacers Hoping Their Depth Continues to Be an X-Factor in the Playoffs

It's easy to look at the upcoming Pacers-Bucks playoff series and salivate over the matchups between the teams' respective stars. Tyrese Haliburton vs. Damian Lillard. Pascal Siakam vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Myles Turner vs. Brook Lopez.

There's plenty of star power in both starting fives, but if the sixth-seeded Pacers are to knock off the third-seeded Bucks, they likely will need continued consistent contributions from the league's best bench.

The 2023-24 Pacers had a historically great offense in the regular season. Indiana led the NBA in scoring and assists, ranked second in the league in both pace and offensive rating, and became the first team in league history to amass 10,000 points and 2,500 assists in a season.

They like to play fast and they score in bunches. Haliburton and the starters had a big hand in a lot of those eye-popping numbers, of course. But what really separated the Blue & Gold from being simply a very good offense to one of the best the league has ever seen was that there really was no drop-off in production when head coach Rick Carlisle turned to his second unit.

The Pacers led the league in bench scoring this season, with their reserves averaging 46.8 points per game. In many ways, Indiana's depth is perhaps is biggest strength entering this series, particularly with the Bucks potentially shorthanded.

Milwaukee ranked 19th in the league in bench scoring at 32.5 points per game. The Bucks didn't rely as heavily on their reserves, which makes sense considering Antetokounmpo was second in the league in scoring 30.4 points per game and Lillard was 16th at 24.3. But Antetokounmpo missed Milwaukee's final three games of the regular season with a calf injury and his availability for the start of the series is in doubt.

With Antetokounmpo absent, the Bucks bumped Bobby Portis — their leading scorer among their reserves at 13.8 points per game — and essentially whittled their rotation down to eight players, with just Jae Crowder, Pat Connaughton, and Malik Beasley coming off the bench.

Carlisle, meanwhile, has deployed at least nine or 10 players off the bench for virtually the entire season. Coaches typically shorten their rotations in the postseason in an effort to play their best players for as many minutes as possible, but the Pacers' bench has been so good all season and should still leave a considerable imprint on this series.

Any discussion of the Pacers' bench must start with T.J. McConnell.

At 32 years old and in his ninth NBA season, McConnell is playing almost inarguably the best basketball of his career. He averaged a career-best 10.2 points per game this season, shooting 55.6 percent from the field and also dishing out 5.5 assists per game. But he's been even better in recent weeks.

Since March 1, McConnell is averaging 14.2 points and 5.3 assists off the bench while shooting 57.7 percent from the field on over 11 attempts per game. Among players to attempt 10 or more shots per game over that span, the only players that have a better field-goal percentage are Jarrett Allen, Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Rui Hachimura, and John Collins.

All of those players are 6-8 or taller. McConnell is 6-1.

He keeps the offense flowing at the same high pace as Haliburton even as he attacks the defense in a completely different way. While Haliburton is known for his deep threes, McConnell attacks the paint, weaving through the trees of opposing bigs and flummoxing them with his ability to get off his step-back fadeaway seemingly at will.

McConnell has looked to score more than ever in a recent weeks. Some of it is related to the loss of second-year guard Bennedict Mathurin, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. But a lot of it is simply that if McConnell is going to be this efficient and teams can't stop him, he's just going to keep looking to attack.

Pacers forward Doug McDermott played with McConnell for two seasons in Indiana from 2019-21 before signing with San Antonio. They were reunited in February when the Pacers acquired McDermott at the trade deadline. McDermott's been blown away by this latest version of McConnell.

"He’s been awesome," McDermott said. "He’s really stepped up. He’s just shown that he’s a lot more than just a backup point guard/passer. He can really score the basketball. That’s what he’s doing. He’s taking what the defense is giving him. And he’s just taken us to a different level."

Beyond his stellar play on the court, McConnell is one of the emotional anchors of this Pacers team. He goes all-out all the time, bringing boundless energy off the bench. In recent weeks at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, there's been a palpable buzz in the crowd in the first quarter whenever McConnell gets up off the bench to check in for the first time. Rookie forward Ben Sheppard went so far as to call him the "heart and soul of our team."

McConnell isn't the only one bringing the energy off the bench. Obi Toppin started at power forward for the first half of the season, but shifted to a reserve role after the Pacers acquired Siakam.

Toppin has truly found a home as high-flying floor spacer on the second unit. He finished the regular season averaging a career-best 10.3 points per game, throwing down 101 dunks while also shooting 40.3 percent from 3-point range. In seven games this month, Toppin averaged 13.7 points and 4.7 rebounds with a .603 field-goal percentage and .414 3-point percentage.

Fourth-year center Jalen Smith has been a steady presence all year long behind Turner, averaging 9.9 points and 5.5 rebounds. Smith is also shooting it better than ever, knocking down a career-best 42.4 percent from 3-point range.

Then there's Sheppard. The 26th overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft has been thrust into unexpected minutes following Mathurin's injury and the Pacers trading away Buddy Hield and Bruce Brown. Sheppard has earned the coaching staff's trust thanks to his effort on the defensive end and his ability to fit in seamlessly on offense.

McConnell likened him to the team's "Swiss army knife" in that he will do whatever is needed on any given night.

Sheppard never played in the NCAA Tournament over his four years at Belmont, but the 22-year-old appears likely to see some minutes in Game 1 of an NBA playoff series on Sunday.

"Just staying calm," Sheppard said. "Believing in myself, believing in my teammates. Trust in the work that you put in. And just having fun. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity as a rookie. Not a lot of people can say that."

If Carlisle elects to go any deeper into his bench over the course of the series, he can also call upon one of the league's top shooters in McDermott, another high-flying big man in third-year center Isaiah Jackson, or another talented rookie in 20-year-old forward Jarace Walker.

"We’ve got a lot of offensive weapons for our team and we’ve also got a lot of defensive weapons as well," Smith said. "The beauty of our team is anybody can go off at any point of the night. It’s tough to plan around that because you never know whose night it's going to be."

The Pacers' second unit, much like the first, has been successful in large part due to their ability to get out in transition. That's something the Bucks no doubt will try to limit, but McConnell said that the Blue & Gold can't alter their identity.

"Playoff basketball, teams that play fast, typically the other team will try to slow them down," McConnell said. "We’ve got to try to get out and still run and do what we do best on makes and misses."

When McConnell and the Pacers are doing what they do best, good luck stopping them.

Indiana Pacers Media Availability | April 19, 2024