The silver lining that emerged from the otherwise gloomy Western Conference excursion was the production of the guy whose recent play had been the gloomiest of all the Pacers.
Tyreke Evans, a non-entity throughout the three weeks prior to the four-game road trip that resulted in defeats against Denver, Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State, played better in each successive game and perhaps re-established himself as a vital contributor going forward.
Evans opened the trip with a solid floor game against the Nuggets, finishing with five points, five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. He followed with nine points and three assists in Portland. Following a meeting with coach Nate McMillan, he shared scoring honors with 19 points and added eight rebounds and seven assists against the Clippers. He concluded the trip with a team-high 20 points and five rebounds in the loss to the Warriors on Thursday.
That followed a 10-game stretch, dating back to the Feb. 23 game at Washington, in which he didn't play in five games and hit just 6-of-31 field goal attempts in the other five. After missing the three games before the road trip for what was described as "personal reasons," it was reasonable to wonder if he would be a factor the rest of the season.
The turnaround appears to relate to another clarification of his role, along with playing time. Darren Collison's quadricep contusion, which kept him out of the games in L.A. and Oakland, allowed 10 more minutes of playing time for Evans in those games. As has been the case throughout the season, his field goal percentage improved with his playing time. He scored 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting in the only game in which he's played more than 30 minutes this season, against Washington on Dec. 10. He's shot 42 percent in the 26 games he's played 20-29 minutes, and 35 percent in the 11 games he's played 10-19 minutes.
Just as importantly, he was able to play more aggressively amid the depleted ranks of point guards. His usual backcourt mate with the second unit, Cory Joseph, started those games, leaving Evans with greater control of the offense while playing off the bench.
"We need for him to (be aggressive)," McMillan said Saturday following practice at St. Vincent Center. "Sometimes you go through a stretch where maybe you're not on top of your game. He missed some games due to injuries, due to illness and some personal things. He's back now and he's playing aggressive basketball - which we need all our guys to do."
Evans has arrived at this point of the season via roller coaster. He's had some standout performances, but has missed 12 games because of the variety of issues McMillan listed. The most common underlying factor in his play has been his knee, which was injured when Joel Embiid fell on it in Philadelphia on Dec. 14. Evans received a platelet-rich plasma injection shortly after that and responded with a 19-point effort in Atlanta that led to a stretch in which he scored in double figures in 11-of-13 games. But that was followed by a stretch in which he failed to reach double figures in six games and was inactive in three others.
His 19-point outing against the Clippers was his first in double figures since the Feb. 22 game against New Orleans, the first after the All-Star break.
"It has a major impact when Tyreke is playing that way," said Collison, whose status for Sunday's game against Denver is questionable. "Not too many guys can give you 15 or 20 points off the bench. Domas (Sabonis) has been going it all season long. Imagine if we had him and Tyreke playing at that level. It's going to make us even tougher."
Evans appears to need Sabonis to play at his peak level, and Sabonis usually benefits from Evans' presence as well. They form an effective pick-and-roll combination that generates layups and nudges the offense toward "playing downhill" – a.k.a. attacking the basket – that the starters often struggle to do. Sabonis recently missed five games with a sprained ankle. Evans played in three of them and hit just 5-of-20 shots and totaled just three assists.
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Evans also clearly benefits from the knee injections. He scored 19 points at Atlanta on 7-of-9 shooting, including 4-of-4 3-pointers) in his first game after the first treatment in New York. He had 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting in his first game following another treatment over the All-Star break.
He might receive another, if possible, before the playoffs begin.
"I don't know yet, but if I could I definitely would like to, just to be on the safe side," he said. "If not, I think I'll be fine the way I am."
Evans obviously would be a major asset for the Pacers in the playoffs if he can continue his recent level of play. He has just four games of postseason experience in his 10 previous NBA seasons. Playing with New Orleans in the 2014-15 season, the Pelicans were swept out of the first round by eventual champion Golden State.
Still, it left a thirst for more.
"I'm definitely going to be ready, with a lot of energy," he said. "I know what the playoffs are like. It's a different environment; it's a different type of basketball.
"You get the chills when you're out there."
There's another incentive for Evans. He signed a one-year contract with the Pacers last summer, meaning he's in a contract season. That makes him a 29-year-old veteran of 11 NBA seasons who is in audition mode.
"Definitely," he said. "I think I still can go. I'm getting up there (in age), but I feel like I still can go a lot more games. I want to go as much as possible."
Time for load management?
With a playoff berth secured, McMillan said Saturday he is considering resting some players the final three weeks of the season – a common practice currently known within the NBA as "load management."
It can be done by holding players out of games, or reducing their minutes, something he's already done in recent weeks.
"We do have some guys who haven't missed a game this season," McMillan said. "Part of that is what we saw from our guys (on the road trip), that drop-off in the second half. It's not that they're not trying to give the effort, but mentally you're fried.
"We have nine games to go and you have to manage that."
McMillan said he is considering managing someone's load in Sunday's game, but that might depend on the status of Collison. He suffered a deep bruise when he bumped knees with Portland's Damian Lillard on Monday, and sat out the final two games. He was a partial participant in Saturday's practice, but said he is uncertain about playing against the Nuggets.
Regardless, it appears Evans and reserves such as Doug McDermott, T.J. Leaf, Aaron Holiday and Kyle O'Quinn could be headed for more playing time.
One of the challenges for the Pacers coming off their four losses on the road trip will be to maintain a positive vibe as they try to maintain a place in the Eastern Conference standings that would bring homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Collison, Thad Young and Wesley Matthews talked among themselves on one of the practice courts for an extended period following Saturday's session, and touched on that topic.
"We're not in a good place mentally because we lost four in a row, but we have to keep things in perspective," Collison said.
"We were talking, what type of mindset do we want to have going into the playoffs? We need a lot of positivity."
They'll have to pick up the slack in that department left by the absence of Victor Oladipo, the self-described "positive butterfly" who brought upbeat energy to every practice and game.
"No matter what Vic was going through, he was always live and jolly," Collison said. "That puts things in perspective. We're still OK. We're still good. We want to instill that into the team."
Source: Indiana Pacers | Mark Montieth