The Pacers were supposed to matter this season because Victor Oladipo matters. It took a trade to Indiana at the lowest point of his career for us to realize how much Oladipo, and the scoring and leadership and star power he carries, do matter; he carried the 2017-18 Pacers to 48 wins. We’ve learned (or remembered, for those crossover college basketball fans) enough about him in the short time he’s been a Pacer to fall in love with him. He’s a dribble-driver, a singer, a budding politico, and, perhaps, a hippie. “I’m a positive butterfly,” he told ESPN in February, his first interview since his season-ending knee injury January 23. Indiana had lost its first four games without Oladipo. He spoke to the team before its next game and “told them what I thought they needed to hear. The team is very capable of doing special things without me.” They could matter without him.
Indiana won its next six, and seven of its next eight. The basketball gods love a good Hoosier underdog, but the Pacers have spent the past six weeks politely asking you not to call them that. Until last weekend, the Bojan Bogdanovic–and–Myles Turner–led team was third in the standings. But now the Pacers have lost five of seven, and a two-game losing streak against the Bucks and the Sixers knocked them down to fourth, with the Celtics trailing by only a game and a half. All in all, the Pacers have gone 10-10 without Oladipo. Only 15 games stand between Indiana and the playoffs, but it’s a remarkably difficult stretch—the sixth-toughest remaining schedule of any team—including the Warriors, the Nuggets twice, and the Thunder twice.
It’s premature to say the Pacers have hit a wall, but they are love-tapping one. After a Tuesday home game against the Knicks—one of the few easy matchups remaining—they’ll face seven Western Conference teams in a row, all of which are over .500. The Pacers appear poised for a slide down the standings and an early postseason exit, the latter of which the franchise must be used to by now. Coexisting with LeBron James for years meant capping out at the Eastern Conference finals, and, for the last three years, the Pacers have been eliminated in the first round. With Oladipo, this team was expected to end somewhere between. Without him, it may still surpass its Vegas win total of 47.5 games, but little more.
A tough schedule ahead is not necessarily the end for the Pacers. Head coach Nate McMillan and the front office deserve hat tips for thriving in February despite missing Domantas Sabonis, Turner, Tyreke Evans, and Doug McDermott for stretches. And yes, those are players Indiana needs. If the Nets’ success this season is a surprise party filled with a room of people you didn’t know, the Pacers’ is one with friends you forgot you had. Sabonis, who’s revamped expectations for his career, is back after missing five games, bringing a much-needed presence in the paint. Bogdanovic and recent acquisition Wesley Matthews are shooting away the hole Oladipo left. (Matthews is averaging a team-high 6.6 3-point attempts per game, more than Oladipo.) Thad Young, who could’ve left Indiana for a bigger market this summer, is the go-to lockdown defender on an exceptional top-two defense, and Turner is the anchor, becoming a Defensive Player of the Year candidate along the way and canceling the worries that he was a disappointment.
Dropping to fourth in the standings means Indiana will likely face Boston in the first round of the postseason. It’s not the matchup the NBA wants—Sixers-Celtics is overflowing with narratives, where Pacers-Celtics would be a defensive grind—but the pressure would be on for Boston, which has more outright talent. Last playoffs, the Celtics had, enviably, expectations as low as the current Pacers’. Indiana doesn’t have to make it to the conference finals for the season to be a win. Its front office, coaching staff, and role players are already passing the test of enduring without the star it had, which is beginning to seem like a Pacers specialty.