Pacers Caris LeVert (back) showing signs of recovery, drops season-high vs. Bucks

Andy Yamashita
Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — Caris LeVert was all alone. 

Standing near the logo, with the ball in his hands and 21.5 seconds left in the first half, the Pacers guard slowly started to walk down court, sizing up his opponent. 

In front of him, Milwaukee Bucks point guard and former IUPUI star George Hill got low. A solid defender throughout his 12-year career, Hill, now 35, seemed like he’d need every bit of athleticism he had left to keep up with LeVert, who’s shotmaking and scoring abilities have been his calling card.

But as LeVert feinted to his left and began to drive right, Indiana Pacers rookie Chris Duarte approached to set a screen, bringing a new defender with him — Jrue Holiday. A two-time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, the Bucks stopper quickly switched onto LeVert. 

It didn’t matter. 

LeVert crossed back to his left and surged down the lane past the shuffling Holiday. Knifing into the paint, he ran into the Bucks' Bobby Portis, but the former Michigan star didn’t mind, absorbing the contact and learning to his right, gently kissing the ball off the glass for a layup. 

“I think moves like that, when I just go into it without thinking about it, I think that’s very telling,” said LeVert, who has been battling a back injury. “I felt like tonight, I wasn’t really thinking about my back or anything like that, and that’s the goal moving forward -- to continue to put myself in that situation.”

LeVert’s slalom to the basket accounted for just two of his 23 points Sunday night in the Pacers 118-100 loss to the reigning champion Bucks. It’s his highest scoring performance of the season, and just the third time he’s contributed at least 20 points since returning from the stress fracture in his back, which he suffered during training camp. 

Coach Rick Carlisle called LeVert the one player on the team who really generated any offense Sunday, something the Pacers desperately needed since All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis was held to just four points, a season-low. 

Nov 28, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Caris LeVert (22) dribbles the ball while Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) defends in the first quarter at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

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“(LeVert's) generating a lot in the paint,” Carlisle said. “His rhythm is better. I think our recognition of how to play with him in that aggressive mode is improving, and we gotta keep building on it. And the most important thing is that he continues to feel better and better.”

LeVert’s return from his back injury has been a methodical process. He missed the first six games of the season, then sat out an additional two in mid-November with lower back soreness. The Pacers have tried to manage his minutes, and LeVert said dealing with the pain has been the most difficult part of his rehab, especially as he tries to regain game sharpness and fitness. 

The Pacers have needed LeVert to be at his best, too. Indiana lost three of its first six games by single digits and have lacked a reliable, natural finisher to close games out. It’s the role LeVert envisions for himself once he returns to full strength. 

“I’m a player who does a little bit of everything,” he said. “I’m a playmaker offensively, a scorer, a closer as well, solid defensively. Those are the things I talked about with coach and some of the staff before the season started.”

In Wednesday’s overtime loss to the Lakers, for example, LeVert played 27 minutes, but spent the entire overtime on the bench. He only played 4:02 in the fourth quarter. While the shooting guard’s not officially on a minutes restriction, Carlisle has been reluctant to play him more than 33 minutes per game. 

All of this makes sense though. There’s no point in rushing LeVert back, and back injuries are notoriously fickle. Sunday night was a glimpse of the player the Pacers are waiting for. Swingman Justin Holiday thinks LeVert’s performance was the result of his teammate finally having enough time to acclimate to the speed of the NBA. 

“When you come back from an injury, or come back even from being out, sometimes it takes a little time,” Holiday said. “So I think he’s got more games under his belt.”

Facing Milwaukee, which ranks 11th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, LeVert showed off a little bit of everything. He shot 9-of-13 from the field, scoring at all three levels and going 4-of-5 from beyond the arc. LeVert also added two rebounds and an assist. 

The return of LeVert’s three-point shooting is another bonus. Entering Sunday, he was shooting just 24.1% from deep, a huge falloff for a player who’s averaged 33.1% for his career. Point guard Malcolm Brogdon believes the improvement is due to LeVert’s relentless desire for improvement. 

“He’s a guy that’s been tenacious with his work in the gym, regardless of where he’s at in his recovery,” Brogdon said. “He does up to the amount he can do. He’s doing that every day. And when they released him and he’s up to 100%, he’s worked out hard — before practice, after practice. His work ethic is why he has the results that he wants.”

With the second half of a back-to-back looming Monday against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Minneapolis, LeVert’s status is still unknown. However, Sunday was still an encouraging sign in the wing’s recovery and if the Pacers want to have any chance to make the playoffs, LeVert will have to be a crucial part of it. 

“Time heals all so the more time that comes, the better I feel,” he said.