Pacers head into All-Star break on high note after struggling badly in Victor Oladipo’s return

Pacers' Victor Oladipo vs. Raptors, Feb. 7, 2020 (AP Photo Darron Cummings)
Pacers' Victor Oladipo (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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The Indiana Pacers knew patience would be required with Victor Oladipo when he returned to the lineup after missing over a year with a ruptured quad tendon in his knee. While Oladipo was a hero in his return game against the Chicago Bulls, he struggled with his shot all night, and the Pacers needed a late comeback and overtime to beat a banged-up Bulls squad.

What followed was a six-game losing streak that overlapped with a quiet trade deadline for Kevin Pritchard’s crew, with Oladipo appearing in five of those games and shooting 35.7% or under in four of those contests. Two of the losses were of the heartbreaking variety by just one point, though Indiana covered only one spread over this stretch.

Myles Turner and Aaron Holiday were mentioned in trade rumors leading up to the Feb. 6 trade deadline, but Pritchard chose to stay the course and not make any drastic moves, knowing the return of his star player was essentially a deadline acquisition in itself. Oladipo didn’t panic either, because he knew it would take time for him to both find his own groove while meshing with a team that racked up an impressive 30-17 record before he came back.

Via ESPN’s Royce Young:

“I missed a whole year of NBA basketball, not just basketball. It’s the highest level of basketball. It’s different,” Oladipo said. “I’m not frustrated at all. Because I’ve been on the court and made all those shots that I’m shooting. I know I can make ’em.

“It’s just a matter of syncing my body and my mind.”

Wise words, but with a date against the mighty Milwaukee Bucks on tap in their final game before the All-Star break, the Pacers were in legitimate danger of dropping an unlucky seven consecutive games heading into the break.

Instead, Oladipo and Indiana finally got on track with an impressive 118-111 victory, with T.J. Warren going for 35 points on 16-of-19 shooting. Sure, Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t play because of the birth of his first child, but the Bucks were 5-0 without The Greek Freak this season.

Oladipo didn’t put up eye-popping numbers in the feel-good victory, but he scored an efficient 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting while adding four assists and three rebounds in 29 minutes. The Pacers outscored the Bucks by six points in those 29 minutes.

This was a positive step given Oladipo’s ghastly numbers heading into the contest. He shot 29.5% overall and 23.1% on 3-pointers in his first six games back, and Indiana was outscored by 14.4 points per 100 possessions in his minutes, per The 96.3 on-court offensive rating was especially putrid.

It’s almost a bummer that the Pacers now have over a week off for the All-Star break so they can’t immediately build on Wednesday’s victory. Domantas Sabonis will be in Chicago for All-Star festivities, where he’ll take part in Saturday’s Skills Challenge and Sunday’s All-Star Game.

Oladipo and the rest of the club will get extended time off before regrouping to face the New York Knicks on Feb. 21. Indiana suffered an ugly loss to the lowly Knicks during the six-game losing streak, so revenge will be in order.

The Pacers now sit at 32-23, sixth in the Eastern Conference and still on pace for nearly 48 wins (right around their season win total posted on oddsboards). They’re still six games clear of the seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets, so there’s little danger of falling below sixth. Indiana is two games behind the fifth-place Philadelphia 76ers and 3.5 games behind the Miami Heat in fourth.

Even if the Pacers hold in the No. 6 spot, they’ll be feisty underdogs in the first round. Oladipo may not fully return to form this season, but by then he should be close. Indiana may not be a legitimate contender until next season, as evidenced by its 100/1 championship odds, but that doesn’t mean a little noise can’t be made.