Victor Oladipo, conspicuously absent during the Pacers' losing streak, returned to practice Thursday for the first time in 10 days, and while he wouldn't promise he'll play in Saturday's game against Chicago, there was a compelling bit of evidence.
After practice, and after the players had been called back from their closing huddle to sing "Happy Birthday" to the 33-year-old Al Jefferson, Oladipo suddenly burst from the mass of oversized humanity and threw down a ferocious dunk. Notably, he jumped off his right knee, the previously sore one that had kept him out of the past four games and limited him the one before that.
"My knee feels feathery," he said, rolling out his favorite slang expression for the occasion.
The Pacers have gone into a deep freeze without their leading scorer. After getting five games above .500 twice in December, they dropped to 19-19 with Wednesday's loss 21-point loss in Milwaukee. They lost at Detroit, when the soreness in his knee limited him to 13 points and bothered him enough to finally bring it up to the training staff, and they lost the following four games without him.
The impact of losing a player who averages 24.9 points is obvious, but Oladipo's absence seemed to throw the Pacers into a complete tailspin. Although their collective spirit remained high most of the time, their defense softened, their pace slowed, their halfcourt offense stagnated, and their overall execution faltered.
Oladipo, who has watched the past four games in street clothes from the bench, called it "one of those funky stretches."
Coach Nate McMillan was less forgiving.
"It hasn't been pretty," McMillan said. "It hasn't felt good. It's not so much getting beat, it's how you get beat. We're not playing with that energy, that effort, that sense of urgency, that connection we were playing with a month ago. We've got to get back to that."
McMillan hesitated to use Oladipo's absence as the be-all explanation for his team's struggles. But his patience is clearly growing thin, and he's prepared to make changes if things don't get better, with or without the all-star candidate.
"I know we haven't been ourselves," he said. "I can't put my finger on the reason for that. We haven't had that energy at certain positions in the first group. Last night, again, (the Bucks) off to a big start and we just can't have that.
"It's been a challenge to the team. They know what we expect of them. If we're not getting that, then we'll give some other guys an opportunity."
Just as the Pacers' game performance collapsed without Oladipo, their practice performance improved dramatically when he returned on Thursday. Assistant coach Bill Bayno, in a conversation with Fox Sports Indiana's Jeremiah Johnson, said it might have been the best of the season. The normally reserved Domantas Sabonis even enthused over the potential impact of Oladipo's return.
"He's a big, big part of the team," said Sabonis, who scored a career-high 24 points at Milwaukee. "I'm excited, I know everyone's excited to have him back."
Oladipo even makes the post-practice media conversations more lively and interesting. Sabonis had just been asked a question about whether or not Oladipo would add "brightness" to the team's effort as Oladipo approached the group.
"He's right here," Sabonis said. "Victor, can you be the brightness that we need?"
"Say what?" Oladipo responded. "Brightness? I'm just one guy. We're going to be all right. It's was a rough stretch, everybody goes through it, some of the best teams that are doing well now went through it early. We're going through it right now. It's about resilience and trying to figure it out."
The solutions will become much easier to find when Oladipo returns. He'll practice again on Friday, and then be a game-time decision on Saturday once the training staff makes a final evaluation. But if that emphatic practice-closing dunk can be interpreted as a statement of any kind, he'll play, barring an unexpected setback.
And, while he was quick to point out the Pacers have lost games with him this season, and refused to declare himself a savior, he is eager to return and help a wayward team alter its course.
"I'm looking forward to Saturday," he said. "Feels like I ain't played in forever. It's going to be fun."
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