It was the towel. That was the tell.
Josh Corbeil, the Indiana Pacers’ head athletic trainer, kneeled at the side of a grimacing Victor Oladipo, who had just collapsed to the floor. Oladipo was running, and then he wasn’t, and then he slammed into the hardwood, and then he was reaching for his right knee before he had even skidded to a stop.
Oladipo left on a stretcher, raising his arms to the stunned crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but also wiping his eyes as he exited the court. A Thursday MRI confirmed the Pacers’ worst fears: Oladipo had ruptured the quad tendon in his right knee. The injury will require surgery to repair, and will force Oladipo to miss the rest of this season.
It’s a rare injury for a basketball player, but not without precedent: Tony Parker suffered a ruptured left quad tendon during Game 2 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals. He returned to the court nearly seven months later, though he seemed to lack some explosiveness off the dribble. He’s looked more like himself this season in Charlotte, more than a full year removed from the injury. Given that Oladipo is eight years younger than Parker was at the time of his injury, his recovery process should have him back on the court by the start of the 2019-20 season
The Pacers kept playing their asses off on Wednesday, even after the injury, because that’s just what they do. Behind a killer second half from the rock-solid Thaddeus Young, Indiana held off a late charge to score an impressive 110-106 win over the Kawhi Leonard–less Raptors and improve to 32-15, just 2.5 games out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
”We just tried to stick together, is one of the biggest things,” Young told reporters after scoring 12 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter to secure the win. “We always want to stick together, through thick and thin. We know with Vic going down, it was definitely going to be tough, but we want to keep fighting for him.”
They’ve been better at that than you might think. In the 11 games that Oladipo missed earlier this season with a bone bruise on his right knee, the Pacers went 7-4, outscoring opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions due in part to steps forward from Young, big men Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and sharpshooting swingman Bojan Bogdanovic.
During Oladipo’s meteoric rise to All-Star status last season, the Pacers flat-out couldn’t survive without him, getting blitzed by an unsightly 8.2 points-per-100 whenever he stepped off the court. This season, though—thanks to the continued growth of Sabonis and Turner, and the offseason additions of Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott, and rookie guard Aaron Holiday—head coach Nate McMillan’s club has actually had a slightly better scoring margin in non-Oladipo minutes.
They’ll need all of that depth. Even the diminished version of Oladipo, whose production had dipped virtually across the board this season in the face of increased defensive attention and ongoing knee trouble, was still Indiana’s best player.
While his true shooting and effective field goal percentages have plummeted this season, Oladipo is still averaging a team-high 18.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.7 steals in 31.9 minutes per game, making him one of just 11 players in the league going for at least 18-5-5 a night. Of that group, only Giannis Antetokounmpo can claim to be a better or more broadly effective defender than Oladipo; the Pacer is the rare star who brings it just as hard on defense as he does with the ball in his hands, which has provided a culture-setting shot of adrenaline for an Indiana team that sits second in the league in points allowed per possession.
With Oladipo out, McMillan will likely ask Evans to step into the starting backcourt alongside Darren Collison. After a slow start, he’s shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from the 3-point line in 13 appearances since getting a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right knee, and the Turner-Young-Bogdanovic-Evans-Collison lineup has walloped opponents by 11.8 points-per-100 this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. The rotational shuffle should also open up minutes for Holiday, the 23rd pick in the 2018 draft, who showed flashes of being a two-way playmaker earlier in the season and averaged 7.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 16.7 minutes per game when Oladipo was out.
Indiana has more than enough in reserve to remain in position for a playoff berth without Oladipo, and maybe even enough to fend off the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Any hope of making a deep postseason run, though, likely vanished when Oladipo crumbled.
All season long, Indiana’s position among the league’s elite has felt tenuous. Before Wednesday, the question heading into the February 7 trade deadline was whether the Pacers would try to take a big swing for another offensive star who might help boost their offensive ceiling and help ease Oladipo’s burden when good defenses ramp up the pressure in the playoffs. (Like, say, Grizzlies guard Mike Conley.) Now, though, it’s whether Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard might consider going the other direction. Pritchard has made it clear that the Pacers won’t throw in the towel, but if he thinks the team’s drawing dead in the postseason without Oladipo, perhaps he’ll look less at adding pieces than at moving free agents to be—like Young, Bogdanovic, Collison, Evans, backup point guard Cory Joseph, or reserve big man Kyle O’Quinn—for future assets that might help Indy reload for next season.
Or maybe he sits tight, and gives a team that has clearly developed chemistry and continuity around Oladipo the chance to show it can stay afloat without him once again. The Oladipo-less Pacers will still be respectable, professional, a tough out. They could’ve been contenders with a couple of breaks, though, and it’s hard not to feel like the curtain came down on that possibility when the towel came down on Oladipo’s knee. Maybe it’s better not to look under there. It might hurt too much.
This piece was updated after publication with information about the extent of Oladipo’s injury.