INDIANAPOLIS — Rust.
Rust. Rust. Rust. Ru–
That’s how it went for Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers in his first game back in a year, the residue of recovery and rehab messing with him repeatedly through the first 20 minutes or so he played Wednesday night against the Bulls.
Miss after miss from 3-point range, a half dozen before he got one right — about what you’d expect given the severity of his injury (rare rupture of his right quadriceps tendon) and the length of his layoff (371 days dating to Jan. 23, 2019). So when Indiana, down 100-97, had the ball with 23 seconds left, neither coach Nate McMillan nor the other Pacers even looked to Oladipo. Justin Holiday launched a 3 from the right corner and missed.
So much for Hollywood endings. Until … wait, what? The ball squirted out of bounds off Chicago, and the Pacers huddled with another chance to force overtime. The idea this time: Free up Malcolm Brogdon with a pin-down screen for another shot from the arc.
Good idea, until that left corner got so crowded that Holiday heaved the ball out to Oladipo. He was 28 feet out on the left wing. The Bulls’ Chandler Hutchison had his heels on the 3-point line. Too much space, and — No, no, he didn’t!
Uh, yes he did. Oladipo launched right over Hutchison and sent Bankers Life Fieldhouse, already celebrating and chanting for him much of the night, into convulsions of elation. It was almost as if someone had scripted it.
“I didn’t think he expected me to shoot that,” Oladipo said later. “Did you expect me to shoot that? Not a chance.
“I got the ball. I looked over to see if the play was forming. It didn’t form. I went into V.O. mode after that. Simple as that. ‘Mamba mentality.’”
Nobody was getting this relatively small-scale hoops action twisted with the events that had shaken the NBA and the sports world to their core at the start of the week – Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others perishing in a helicopter crash Sunday. But hard or sad perspectives have been forced on a lot of folks by the tragedy, and Oladipo – more pensive than most and with nothing but time on his hands – already had processed some of the feelings.
“I didn’t think about the six I missed,” Oladipo said. “I just thought about banging that one. The rest of the game didn’t matter. I was just staying in the moment — I got that from Kobe.
“Obviously I got a little emotional out there. That’s just because, the week has been emotional.”
Oladipo had targeted this one against the Bulls, the first of three straight and six of seven at home, for his return. He had missed the equivalent of a full NBA season, 82 games, during which Indiana went 46-36 without him. That included a surprising 30-17 mark prior to what became the 115-106 overtime victory Wednesday.
He wasn’t out there for the extra five minutes, the team’s training staff cutting short by a few what had been penciled as a 24-minute limit. Didn’t matter, the game pivoted on Oladipo’s shot. The Pacers scrambled from seven down late in regulation, then blew out the Bulls in the extra period.
“He wasn’t passing the ball,” McMillan said. “That’s a shot he’s been practicing all summer long. Even though he couldn’t move, this summer I watched him in Miami. That shot, he has been working on.”
The Pacers coach game Oladipo high marks for the quickness he showed and a willingness to fight through screens defensively, as well as venture into traffic on offense.
“What that tells me is, he trusts his body,” McMillan said. “What you look for in a player when they come back injury, especially being off for a year, is hesitancy. And I didn’t think he played hesitant out there.”
Oladipo missed shots, threaded some nice passes – he finished with nine points, four assists, two rebounds and two turnovers — and got over some early jitters. He was appreciative enough to be back that, in the home locker room, he thanked his teammates both before and after the game.
The guys lifted me up, holding it down out there. They’ve been great people before basketball players.”
“There was a lot surrounding my return,” Oladipo said. He talked and talked after the game because, just like he had missed a season’s worth of playing appearances, he also missed a year’s worth of postgame podiums.
“I just wanted to thank them because they needed to hear it. Guys who don’t play that much were playing with me [3-on-3, 4-on-4] pretty much every day or every other day trying to get me ready. They guys lifted me up, holding it down out there [for this season’s surprising start]. They’ve been great people before basketball players.”
They’re going to need to stay that way. Working Oladipo back in for a night or two is an adrenaline thing, but reconfiguring the lineups and the pecking order of a team that has been thriving can be tricky. How long it takes the 27-year-old guard to regain his All-Star form, that’s big. But giving him the room to do it without losing the contributions or focus of teammates who’ve been fighting without the cavalry could be even bigger.
McMillan knows it and isn’t even sugar-coating it. Right off, he named the three players whose roles and minutes might get shaved now: guards Aaron Holiday, T.J. McConnell and Jeremy Lamb.
The latter two were fine against Chicago, logging their customary minutes. But Holiday got a DNP-CD; his 10.4 points, his 3.5 rebounds, his floor work and his defense weren’t needed because of the matchups McMillan sought. And in the coming days, weeks and months, it could be the other two whose toes get stepped on.
“When a player gets hurt, [another] player steps up into his role,” said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. “That is easier than when that [injured] player comes back and [the replacement] has to step back into the role he previously had. That’s the trick. It’s very difficult.
“‘I’m going from playing these minutes to these minutes now, and I’ve got to do it the right way and play hard.’ It’s hard on everybody.”
One game in and given the outcome, there mostly was kumbaya emanating from the Pacers. Time will tell. Factor in so many new faces who just got their first game experience with Oladipo – guys such as Brogdon, McConnell, Lamb, Justin Holiday, T.J. Warren – and there clearly is a lot of learning to do.
“Any time you add a guy like Vic, things are going to change. And they’re going to change for the better,” McConnell said. “We just have to figure out the way he plays, because we’re new to this team. Figure out his spots and everything. So it’s an adjustment period, but for the better.”
If so, the Pacers will have gotten a week’s jump on the league’s trade deadline, adding talent without shedding a soul. That could generate a lot of moments worth staying in.
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