The Indiana Pacers have been a mess since the All-Star break, which has moved public opinion about this team from being a challenger to the Miami Heat to being an easy Twitter joke about a team being a mess in the face of pressure. The team can't seem to get any continuity and players calling teammates selfish and requesting some rest before the playoffs begin hasn't really turned around the inconsistencies facing this team and the way they play offense for 48 minutes each night.
However, in the last three games, C.J. Watson has returned from hamstring and elbow injuries to give the Pacers a bit of a boost off the bench. While Donald Sloan tried to placate the absence of the Pacers' backup point guard during a stretch in which Watson missed 18 straight games, the Pacers struggled without Watson and started to fall into their spiral even deeper. The Pacers went 7-11 in Watson's absence.
In Sunday's win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Watson reminded everybody the importance of having a reliable backup point guard. There aren't many teams who are playoff bound that don't have the luxury of a guy that can slide into the lineup or play heavy minutes in the rotation as a backup point guard. The Heat (Norris Cole), Raptors (Greivis Vasquez), Nets (Shaun Livingston), Bulls (D.J. Augustin), and Washington Wizards (Andre Miller) are all playoff teams in the East with a reliable backup point guard.
The Pacers didn't have that with Watson out for over a month, and since he's returned he's been a positive for them in every game. Watson was a plus-two in a bench victory over the Milwaukee Bucks three games ago. He scored eight points on five shots in 17 minutes in the two-point victory. In a loss to the Miami Heat the next game, the Pacers were a plus-four with Watson on the court for 19 minutes, as he had 10 points on five shots.
Sunday against the Thunder, Watson played even deeper into the game while having a big impact. He scored 20 points in 25 minutes off the bench, and the Pacers were plus-nine with him on the court. Watson has been giving them a reliable attacker while George Hill and Sloan have struggled to do so. And it's perhaps his absence after the All-Star break that turned the Pacers into such a bumbling mess.
On the season, Watson has the third highest net rating of any player who has logged 1,000 minutes or more for the team with a plus-7.1 points per 100 possessions. That was better than anybody on the team not named David West (plus-8.4) or Roy Hibbert (plus-7.3). Since the All-Star break, Watson's net rating in 12 games is a plus-8.9 with West coming in second with a plus-1.9. No other player on the Pacers has a positive net rating during this stretch of 29 games.
Watson isn't the most important player on the Pacers, but he's a forgotten cog to the machine that helps them run at a seemingly elite level. He gives them options on the floor, someone who can break down the defense, and a solid shooter from outside. They can have him lead the second unit or sprinkle him into the lineup with most of the starters. This team has been lacking competent offense and that's what they have with Watson on the floor.
The offense without Watson in the last 29 games scores a pathetic 97.6 points per 100 possessions. With him on the court during this stretch, they're scoring an impressive 110.0 points per 100 possessions. Could this really have been the problem all along? They were missing a competent guard off the bench who knew how to play with any combination of players on the court?
With just one more win or Miami loss needed to clinch home court advantage in the East playoffs, the Pacers finally have breathing room heading into the postseason. From their, they'll likely get a pretty favorable matchup in round one to continue to let life with Watson on the court flourish to build their confidence back up.
If that confidence and production becomes elite again, perhaps public opinion will shift on this team once again.