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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Veteran coach has steadied the ship after loss of star guard Oladipo

COURTESY: DAVID BLAIR - Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan (right) shares a light moment with Trail Blazers successor and coach Terry Stotts at Moda Center.The Trail Blazers dodged a bullet with CJ McCollum's recent knee injury.

Medical reports show it's just a strain, and Portland's starting shooting guard should be back in action before the end of the month.

The Indiana Pacers weren't so fortunate when shooting guard Victor Oladipo — a two-time NBA All-Star averaging a team-high 18.8 points per game — was lost for the season with an ACL knee injury on Jan. 23.

But the Pacers — 32-15 and in third place in the NBA's Eastern Conference at the time — haven't folded.

Indiana comes to Portland for Monday's Moda Center matchup with the Blazers at 44-26 and in fourth place in the East, still in line to earn home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"My coaching staff and the players have done a good job of keeping themselves ready to go," says Indiana coach Nate McMillan, the man who coached Portland for 6 1/2 seasons. "We've always talked about having the guys ready to step up if they're needed. I've been really pleased with the way they've done that after we lost Victor."

After the Pacers lost their first four games without Oladipo, McMillan met with the players.

"I told the group, 'We can't focus on what we don't have; we have to focus on what we do have,'" McMillan says. "I said, 'Let's do the things we've been doing all season long — playing together, playing hard. Do that and you'll give yourself a chance to win some games.'"

McMillan also slowed down what had become a free-wheeling offense and focused even more emphasis on the defensive end. The Pacers went on a six-game win streak and have gone 12-11 since Oladipo's injury, keeping themselves in position to fall no further than to fifth in the East by the end of the regular season.

"Nate has been tremendous with this team," says Indiana general manager Kevin Pritchard, who held the same position with the Blazers from 2007-10. "It's been a team that's been very resilient. Nate has kept the guys together, playing hard and playing smart. It's given them a chance to win on any given night. I couldn't be more proud of the job he has done."

One of the keys was the free-agent acquisition of Wesley Matthews, who had played for a season and a half under McMillan with the Blazers from 2010-12.

On Feb. 7, Matthews had been waived by New York, along with center Enes Kanter, after being sent to the Knicks from Dallas in the Kristaps Porzingis trade.

In 13 games with Indiana, all as a starter, Matthews has averaged 12.8 points while shooting .402 from the field and .393 from 3-point range and .889 from the line.

"We were big fans of Wesley back when I was in Portland, and tried to sign him (with the Pacers)," Pritchard says. "Nate had a relationship with him. We needed a veteran 2 guard. It became a recruiting process. We told him what his role would be. He liked that we were still staying competitive even after Victor's injury. He's been really good for us."

Matthews, 32, says he talked with several teams, all playoff contenders. Why did he choose the Pacers?

"A lot of it was just a feel for what would be the best situation for me, with the role I'd play and the players I'd be with — where I could make the biggest impact," he says. "I'd played with a few of these guys (with the Pacers) in the summers, so I felt comfortable with them. And I'd been with Nate, so I knew what to expect. That was a big reason, too.

"It's been good. Could be better. You can never get complacent. I'm just trying to find a way to help us get as many wins as we can to get in the best position possible for the playoffs."

In Oladipo's absence, the Pacers have been led by forward Bojan Bogdanovic, who is averaging 17.8 points and shooting .496 from the field and .421 from 3-point range. He led Indiana in scoring in seven of eight games prior to a 102-100 loss at Denver on Saturday in which Bogdanovic's 3-point attempt for the win bounced off the rim.

"Bojan become our go-to guy down the stretch," Pritchard says. "We're giving him the ball the last four minutes of a game. He has blossomed in that role.

"We've gone to him as much as anybody, but it's been a collective responsibility. It's been a different player on any given night to step up and make plays down the stretch. Nate has put the right guys in position to go make plays."

Without Oladipo, nine Pacers are averaging at least seven points per game, including forward Domantas Sabonis, who has come off the bench to average 14.3 points and a team-high 9.1 rebounds while shooting .598 from the field.

"We consider him (the NBA's) Sixth Man of the Year," McMillan says. "We feel Domantas' impact when he's on the floor. He has a high basketball IQ, can shoot and is our best rebounder. He's been really good."

Portland has had its way with Indiana in recent years, winning seven of their last eight meetings. The Blazers have won nine straight against the Pacers on their home court.

"CJ is a guy who can score 50 points in three quarters (as he did last February against Chicago)," Matthews says. "You take that out of it, (the Blazers) are a different team.

"But they have guys who are capable of stepping up and filling the gap. We know we're going to have our hands full. They're really tough to beat, especially on their home court."

The Blazers "have given us trouble," McMillan says. "They beat us early in the season (103-93 at Indianapolis on Oct. 29). "They've done a good job of adding some veteran players to their roster. (Rodney) Hood and Kanter, those guys are starters in other organizations. The've strengthened their bench and are a really good team. Once they get McCollum back, that's a team that can do well in the playoffs."

The Pacers are the midst of a difficult stretch of schedule. After Portland, they face the Lakers, Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City and Boston in succession.

"We knew it was important that we got off to a good start, because this last month and a half of the (regular season) was going to be brutal," McMillan says. "But that's part of the NBA. We're just trying to finish strong going down the stretch."

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@kerryeggers


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