The race for the second seed in the East has quickly turned into one of the more fascinating and contested in recent memory. The dominant Milwaukee Bucks have firmly established themselves atop the conference, but each of the five teams right behind them is desperately vying to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
MORE: The race for No. 2 in the East
The Toronto Raptors currently have a 1.5 game lead for that spot, thanks in large part to their current 11-game win streak. Considering preseason expectations, having the second-best record in the East - and third-best in the entire NBA - is a remarkable achievement at this point; but for the Raptors - as well as the four teams chasing them - grabbing the two seed and starting on the opposite side of the bracket as the Bucks has to be the top priority for the rest of the season.
Of the four teams looking to surpass the Raptors, the Indiana Pacers are clearly the biggest wildcard. Victor Oladipo is finally back on the court after missing over a year with an injury and his return not only gives Indiana a star but puts it in position to be Toronto's biggest threat over the next three months.
After winning eight of their last 12, the Pacers sit at 31-19 and fifth in the East. It isn't an easy task to jump over Miami and Boston before even getting to Toronto, but they will have several head-to-head chances to make up ground against those three teams, starting with the matchup against the Raptors on Wednesday.
MORE: Can Raptors break all-time franchise record?
Oladipo's return provides the shot in the arm Indiana needs. In his first 20 minutes back, he hit one of the most clutch shots of the season and helped the Pacers steal a win they desperately needed against the Bulls.
Victor Oladipo from deep to tie it for the @Pacers in his return to action. pic.twitter.com/hShG72sxCN- NBA (@NBA) January 30, 2020
While that shot stole the headlines, it's worth pointing out that up until that very moment Oladipo had struggled in his return, missing each of his first six shots from beyond the arc. That clutch shot in the arm aside, it's still going to be a work in progress as Oladipo finds his rhythym.
The great thing about the Pacers roster, though, is that they don't need him to rush. Domantas Sabonis has blossomed into an All-Star and is the only player besides the reigning MVP to average 18 points and 12.5 rebounds this season. Malcolm Brogdon has thrived in his first season as a Pacer and had a legitimate case to have been named an All-Star as well.
Together, they have buoyed Indiana's effective, if not always aesthetically pleasing, 15th-ranked offence.
Indiana has proven capable of winning without Oladipo all season but his presence, even in limited minutes, has completely changed the ceiling of this team. The Pacers have been elite in the mid-range and post all season, but there's a limit to how efficient an offence you can be while being so reliant on those shots. They've taken the fewest 3s and free throws in the league this season, two stats Oladipo led the team in each of the last two seasons and should help raise out of the basement almost immediately.
It might take some time before Oladipo is the explosive, impossibly-quick driver we remember but he's already helped improve Indiana's 3-point shooting. He attempted 10 3s against the Mavericks in just his third game back, marking just the third time all season a Pacer has attempted double-digit 3s in a game.
His shot hasn't been falling thus far but a rusty jumper is more than understandable in this small of a sample size. His willingness to take those shots - and the defence's need to press up and defend them - opens up the floor for all of his teammates and will help make the difficult shots Indiana has lived on all season just a little easier.
Victor Oladipo rises from DEEP.- NBA (@NBA) February 4, 2020
📲💻: https://t.co/lZZApswzuX pic.twitter.com/caOzoG5pWf
On the defensive end, his boost will be even greater. Oladipo is the missing piece for a defence that is already a top-10 unit. Indiana has held opponents to the ninth-lowest field goal percentage this season without a true lockdown perimeter defender, and now they get back one of the best in the league.
Once Oladipo reenters the starting lineup, Indiana will have one of the deepest and most versatile playoff rosters in the league. Oladipo, Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb make up an elite three-man backcourt. TJ Warren, Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott all threaten defences in different ways on the wing; and Myles Turner and Sabonis form an incredibly formidable center duo.
It's fair to have doubts about Indiana's lack of top-tier superstar talent but, with Oladipo, the Pacers now have the versatility to defend any offence and diversity of talent to score on just about any defence. Yes, it was before the injury, but it's not that long ago that Oladipo went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in a seven-game slugfest.
In many ways, the Pacers are now a mirror image of the Raptors. Both teams rely on elite defence but have enough offence to win shootouts. Each team has multiple recent All-Stars but lean on depth and versatility to consistently outlast and outsmart some of the more star-laden rosters around the league.
Even with Toronto's incredible run, neither of these teams will be the popular pick to end up with the second seed. The Heat, Celtics and 76ers are all bigger names with bigger stars who will grab most of the shine, but Toronto and Indiana both have great shots to end up on top in this race.
It won't be an easy path for Indiana to surprise everyone and threaten Toronto for the number two seed but with an increasingly healthy Oladipo, they might just be the team capable of getting hot and making that run.
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