When Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo went down with a gruesome knee injury against the Toronto Raptors back on Jan. 23, the Pacers looked dead in the water. Sure, they had managed to beat the Raptors that night, but they then proceeded to lose four games in a row, with three of those losses coming to non-playoff teams in the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic.
They looked lifeless.
But, since then, the Pacers have actually reeled off four consecutive wins, including a 42-point drubbing of the Los Angeles Lakers this past Tuesday. Indiana is now 36-19 on the year and still holding on to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
In spite of that, you have to admire the Pacers’ resolve over the last week.
So, how are they doing it?
Well, let me just say this: with a healthy Oladipo, I had Indiana as the third-best team in the East behind Toronto and Boston, which means that there is a lot more to this team than just ‘Dipo.
The Pacers have a lot of length, a lot of athleticism and a lot of depth. They can shoot, they can rebound and they can defend, and their guys come at you in waves.
Whether it’s Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young or Tyreke Evans, Indiana has numerous players who can guard multiple positions on one end of the floor and then display the same type of versatility on offense.
You then have Bojan Bogdanovic, who is having the best season of his career and has actually been one of the better small forwards in the league this season.
Of course, then there is Domantas Sabonis, who is making a legitimate case for Sixth Man of the Year.
This is a good basketball team, and even without Oladipo, they are going to be a pain-in-the-neck matchup for any of the other Eastern Conference contenders in the playoffs.
The Pacers are currently the second-ranked defense in the league, which is where it all starts for them, and it has everything to do with the fact that they can switch everything.
They are kind of like the Celtics in that sense, where they have tough, rugged defenders who are also quick at every position.
Also like Boston, Indiana is deep. It’s not just Sabonis off the pine. You also have the likes of Doug McDermott, Cory Joseph and Kyle O’Quinn. Naturally, the Pacers aren’t as deep as they were with Oladipo, as now, Evans has been moved into the starting lineup, but they still have plenty of serviceable players in reserve.
So, if you think about it, Indy is built similar to the C’s, but is just not as talented.
Here is the thing, though: the Pacers are not getting past the second round of the playoffs, and probably won’t make it past the first round.
That distinction completely hinges on where they fall in the standings. If they are miraculously able to maintain their grasp on the 3-seed, then they will probably play someone like the Brooklyn Nets or Miami Heat in the opening round, teams they can easily beat four out of seven times even without Oladipo. However, if they fall to fourth or fifth, then they are looking at a first-round matchup with one of the top Eastern Conference teams, which will almost certainly spell an early exit for Nate McMillan’s club.
But I don’t think any of us are expecting the Pacers to make any noise in the postseason sans Oladipo.
This is just about how they have been keeping themselves afloat without him, as it shows just how good they can be if and when Oladipo gets back healthy.
Unfortunately, Indiana is not exactly a prime-time free-agent hot spot, so it’s not like the Pacers will be able to sign another star to play alongside of Oladipo, but they are good enough to attract mid-tier guys, and if Oladipo and Turner can keep improving and Indy makes some shrewd trades, the Pacers are going to remain a legitimate threat in the East for years to come.
After all, they did it back in the 1990s and early 2000s in a very small market and when the East was actually really good from top to bottom, so why can’t they do it again?
It’s very easy to root for this team, and it’s refreshing to see the guys responding after appearing to be left for dead just over a week ago.