T.J. Warren appears to have been touched by the hand of the Basketball Gods. The scorchfest started with a 53-point tour de force in the Indiana Pacers' restart opener in Orlando, and it has continued almost unabated: Through five seeding games, Warren has averaged 34.8 points on 60.5 percent shooting and has made 55.6 percent of his 3-pointers on 7.2 attempts per game. Players on other teams are stopping him on "campus" to talk about what's gotten into him, and even his teammates are in awe.
"I think we all just kind of want to follow him around for the day and see what he's doing in the bubble," Pacers guard T.J. McConnell said in a Zoom conference after Warren dropped 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting in a win against the Magic last week.
Just last June, on the night of the NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns dumped Warren to Indiana to create cap space. He had just finished his most efficient season in his five years with the Suns, but they were willing to send the Pacers the No. 32 pick to sweeten the deal.
On Saturday, down three points in crunch time against the Los Angeles Lakers, Victor Oladipo could have isolated against Alex Caruso but chose to feed the hot hand. Warren was covered by LeBron James, so he used a screen from Myles Turner to create some separation, squared up and fired a 25-footer over Anthony Davis.
That the ball fell through the net, that Warren finished with 39 points on 15-for-22 shooting, that the Pacers improved to 4-1 in the bubble -- all of it felt somehow reasonable, maybe even expected. Yet another indication humans can adapt quickly when faced with a new reality.
"T.J. Warren is on a different planet right now," Oladipo said on Zoom. "It don't matter what I say. It don't matter what you say. It don't matter what somebody down the street say -- Johnny, Barley, Ms. Susie -- he locked in right now."
Warren, who is listed as questionable for Monday's game against the Miami Heat with a sore right foot, is unquestionably the breakout star in Orlando. With Domantas Sabonis out of the lineup, the Pacers have moved him from small forward to power forward, and his usage rate has jumped from 22.4 percent to 28.4 percent. Always a master of the midrange, Warren worked on extending his range when he could find a gym over the hiatus. He had made four unassisted 3s in 61 games pre-bubble, and he has made five in these five games.
What's incredible about Warren's run, though, is not so much what's different but what has stayed the same. "He gets buckets; Tony Buckets is his name," former teammate Eric Bledsoe said in October 2016, a description that remains as accurate as it is succinct. Off the ball, he always had a certain type of gravity, even when he was doing almost all his damage inside the arc -- he slithers into open space, a threat to score from any angle if the ball finds him. The smooth, seemingly effortless pull-ups, floaters and leaners he's made in the last week and a half look just like the ones he made in a Suns uniform.
"He's red hot, but he's playing in the flow of the game," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. "He's not forcing anything."
Stylistically, the bigger change has come at the team level. Before the bubble, Indiana started Sabonis next to Turner, and for much of the season it was without Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon or both due to injuries. Sabonis was the hub of the offense, and while his dribble-handoffs, high-post passing and post-ups got him to the All-Star Game, the Pacers had only average efficiency, with a retro shot chart and a pace of play that belied their name. The squad Warren is starring for is faster, smaller and more modern.
Small sample caveats apply, but it's at least interesting that Indiana is now 13th (out of 22) in non-corner 3s rather than dead-last, per Cleaning The Glass, and that their pace has increased by an average of two possessions per game, going from the seventh-slowest team to the equivalent of the 11th-fastest one. McMillan is still preaching ball movement and execution, but his team is not having to work as hard as it used to for clean looks.
This makes the Pacers' future fascinating. Would the return of Sabonis (and wing Jeremy Lamb, who is recovering from a torn ACL) make them a complete team, with more upside than anyone anticipated? Would they be better off trading Sabonis and reorienting the team around their perimeter playmakers? A Warren-Turner frontcourt allows them to play five-out.
There was always going to be more speculation about Kevin Pritchard's front office splitting up Sabonis and Turner, even though lineups featuring the two of them were fine this season. (The debate about which one should be moved can get, uh, intense.) There is uncertainty about Oladipo, too, given that Indiana can sign him to an extension starting at $25 million in the offseason or risk losing him in free agency in 2021.
Warren existed outside of all of that, especially after making such a drastic improvement as a defender. He can play either forward position, and he can both space the floor and create. He is on a team-friendly contract, with two more years on it. His emergence, though, must force the Pacers to contemplate a question that other teams have already been asking themselves: How much playmaking is too much?
In recent years, this has not been an issue for Indiana. Paul George wanted out because he didn't think he had enough talent around him. When Oladipo led the Pacers to the playoffs two years ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers blitzed him, forcing others to make plays. Last April, without Oladipo, their offense sputtered in the first round against Boston, and the season ended in a sweep.
Now the Pacers are considering a champagne problem instead of the curse of the overachiever. Brogdon left the Milwaukee Bucks in part because he wanted to be more of a playmaking point guard than a supporting character on the wing. Oladipo had a 29.5 percent usage rate and averaged 23.1 points in his last full, healthy season. If the guards, the bigs and Warren are all going to make this work long-term, they'll need to sacrifice.
That could be Indiana's plan. Under McMillan, it has managed to maintain a tough-minded, unselfish, defense-first identity despite changing personnel. Sabonis has been a crucial part of that all along, and he'll be happy to to set more screens for Warren. But the front office has to evaluate every possibility, one of which is that the team the Pacers are putting on the court right now, the one with Warren, Oladipo and Brogdon driving the offense, Turner anchoring the defense and everybody else fitting in around them, is showing the way forward.