After Victor Oladipo suffered his season-ending knee injury, the Indiana Pacers looked doomed to a downward spiral as they immediately lost their next four games.
They were in the middle of a 4-game road trip and had lost to their third non-playoff opponent in just six days, but then the schedule gave the Pacers a blessing. They would have an off day in Miami where Oladipo was staying after having surgery on his ruptured quad tendon.
Typically, the patient is the one who needs the visitors to uplift them after a major operation like Oladipo’s but for the Pacers visiting with their All Star was just what they needed.
“It was good to see him, physically,” Myles Turner told the Indy Star. “He was in good spirits. I didn’t expect anything less.”
Doug McDermott agreed and told the Star, “He’s always got energy. He’s always upbeat. He gave us words to hold on to. Vic is still our vocal leader even when he’s not in the locker room. We still talk to him. He texts us. It was good just to hear his voice and be around him.”
After meeting with their lost leader, Indiana immediately followed their losing streak with a winning streak. The next day after visiting with Oladipo, the Pacers beat the Heat in Miami and they ended the road trip with a tight victory over the Pelicans.
“It was mental. We needed this win to get going,” Bojan Bogdanovic said after the team won in Miami. “We have enough quality in this locker room even without Victor to put up the numbers. We just got to be better defensively.”
Once returning home, they put major beatdowns over the Lakers and the Clippers, including handing LeBron James the most lopsided defeat of his career (42 points), and then took care of business against the Cavaliers and Hornets. Six straight victories after seeing their All Star. Must have been some speech.
“I just let them know I’m good,” Oladipo told reporters last week in his first conversation with media since the injury. “… At times it felt like I was letting them down a little bit, but to be able to see them and talk to them, it was good for me just to be able to tell them we’re right where we want to be. Just a reminder that we’re at our best when nobody believes in us. I just reminded them how good they are. Everybody was overreacting, but they didn’t need to. Now, they’re good.”
The Milwaukee Bucks ended the team’s 6-game streak after Oladipo’s pep talk, but the Pacers entered the All-Star break still third in the Eastern Conference. Indiana finally found that same rhythm that saw them go 7-4 in their first stretch without their star player this season.
“Without him we’re fine. We showed it before,” Domantas Sabonis said after seeing his teammate. “Everything he told us was to encourage us. Don’t separate players and coaches. Everything together. What we’ve been talking about for the whole year but hearing it from him, it’s just different.”
In that first time without their star, Oladipo was still with the team during those 11 games. He was still able to contribute while on the bench with words of insight and encouragement and keep the team thinking positive. Now, he has to find other ways.
“If I see something I might text some of the players or text coach,” Oladipo said. “For the most part I’m just watching from afar. They’ve been nothing short of amazing. They just have to keep getting better, man.”
While Oladipo said that he “definitely” plans to return to Indiana and be with the team later this season, his presence for that off-day made a difference for the team as they began to turn things back around.
“You can’t remove basketball completely from a guy like Vic,” McDermott said. “Vic’s deal is, just have fun and don’t put too much pressure on yourselves. A lot of people have already counted us out. So why not go out there loose, have fun and prove everyone wrong?”
Everyone is counting the Pacers out once again. The current 3rd seed in the East is left out of any discussion of the conference contenders that always includes the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics and Sixers. So Indiana is back to being the team that no one believes in. That’s right where they’re comfortable.
The Pacers have a challenging schedule ahead for the rest of the season and hanging on to homecourt in the first round will be difficult. Winning that playoff matchup will be even harder. They’re replacing Oladipo as a collective; everyone is expected to do more now. Their are plenty of hurdles for the team to overcome in order for them to surprise people in the postseason.
Signing Wesley Matthews put everyone back into their roles from the beginning of the year but he obviously can’t replicate the performance of the All Star that he’s filling in for. Turner still needs to be more consistently involved on offense, Bogdanovic will have to carry a nightly scoring load that he’s never had in the NBA, and the team has to figure out how to attack against defenses that switch everything.
To no one’s surprise, Oladipo is still optimistic about his team’s chances for the remainder of the year.
“The team is very capable of doing special things even without me,” Oladipo said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do and where they can go.”
And one thing is certain, no matter the odds this group will never stop fighting. The culture they’ve created over these last two seasons always gives them a chance to prove those that overlook them wrong.