Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic ignored those who doubted the Indiana Pacers last season.
They’re even more determined to prove them wrong in the playoffs.
The veterans who helped the Pacers exceed expectations after losing Paul George in a trade and kept them together following Victor Oladipo’s season-ending knee injury now insist they can help the Pacers overcome a 2-0 deficit against Boston.
“I think the biggest thing for us over the last couple of years is that we’ve always been a resilient team,” Young said Thursday. “We continue to stay confident, continue to trust in one another, I think that helps put us in a better position to win games.”
It’s a test they’ve faced, and passed, many times over the past 22 months.
And every time, it seems the two soft-spoken forwards find themselves playing the calming role in the locker room.
“I can tell you we wouldn’t be the No. 5 seed if not for those two guys,” Doug McDermott said not long after the Pacers sang “Happy Birthday” to Bogdanovic following practice.
The tag-team tandem came together in the summer of 2017, after George’s representatives revealed the All-Star forward would not re-sign with Indiana. General manager Kevin Pritchard responded by dealing his best player to Oklahoma City in exchange for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
Almost instantly, critics began writing off Indiana as a lottery team in the midst of a major rebuild.
But with Young and Bogdanovic as stabilizing influences, Oladipo emerging as an All-Star and Sabonis playing a key role off the bench, the Pacers beat the odds. With the Pacers in playoff position at the trade deadline, Young was one of a half-dozen players who urged Pritchard to keep the roster intact at the trade deadline. Pritchard heeded the advice and Indiana wound up winning 48 games and pushing LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the brink of elimination in the playoffs.
It reminded everyone around the league about the value of team chemistry.
“These guys are really good but it’s not just that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before this first-round series began. “They seem so cohesive as a team, so coachable and they’re physical and tough.”
And now they’re back at it.
While prognosticators figured this season’s Pacers probably would not finish higher than fourth in the East, they again anticipated a collapse when Oladipo crashed to the floor on Jan. 23 with a season-ending ruptured quad tendon. Young and Bogdanovic led the Pacers to a win that night, but when they lost the next four it appeared the season was unraveling.
That’s when Young and Bogdanovic turned things around.
Bogdanovic helped fill the scoring void by shooting 42.5% on 3-pointers and averaging 18.0 points, both career-bests. Young adjusted by becoming a better all-around player and more vocal leader.
“My role is to believe in my guys. I’m the leader of this team,” Young said. “I do a little bit of everything — talking to guys, communicating with guys, going to the coach on behalf of the guys and making adjustments. The coaches listen to me.”
Not surprisingly, Young and Bogdanovic went right back to their old roles after a dismal second-half shooting performance in Game 1 cost the Pacers.
Bogdanovic finished with 23 points and eight rebounds while Young added 15 points and six rebounds only to see a last-minute collapse lead to a 99-91 loss in Game 2. Coach Nate McMillan called it the worst minute of basketball he’s seen in a long time.
Now as the Pacers again try to rebound, Young and Bogdanovic will get some help from an old friend.
Oladipo is expected to attend Game 3 on Friday, marking his first public appearance in Bankers Life Fieldhouse since he ruptured his quad tendon. The Pacers believe Oladipo’s mere presence should help pump up the home crowd.
But Young and Bogdanovic also know what they must do to prevent Indiana from falling into a 3-0 deficit and on the brink of a second first-round sweep in three years.
“It’s critical,” Bogdanovic said as he turned 30. “It’s probably our most important game of the season because if we go down 3-0, it’s going to be tough to come back. We beat ourselves the last two games.”