Oladipo Rides in, Puts on a Show

Victor Oladipo emerged from the shower with a Bluetooth speaker in his left hand, blaring music from the movie "The Greatest Showman." And that was only half of the Hollywood symbolism of his performance.

Greatest Showman? Yeah, you might say that. Oladipo returned from a four-game absence and stepped back into center stage in the Pacers' 125-86 victory over Chicago Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. His 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting led his team's scoring, but his nine assists, five steals, and one mere turnover in his 23 1/2 monitored minutes were probably more significant to the cause.

It was a show that lifted a sellout audience at Bankers Life Fieldhouse out of its seats on many occasions, and seemed to lift the effort and execution of his teammates as well. Most of all, it extracted the team from a five-game losing streak that was directly linked to his absence or, in the case of the first game of the downturn, the limitations imposed by his sore right knee.

You also might say it was as if he rode in on a magic carpet, and that's the other half of the Hollywood analogy. Oladipo is an obsessive fan of Disney movies, and his favorite Disney character is Aladdin, the carpet-riding hero from the 1992 animated movie of the same name. Oladipo made a pitch as soon as he reached his locker stall, where the media was waiting for him.

"I'm trying to get on Disney," he said, looking directly into one a television camera.

"Whatever you want me on, I'm going to do it. Disney Channel. If you want me to be in a Disney movie. If you want me to do The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Whatever you want, I'm ready."

Production is underway for a remake of the original "Aladdin," this time with human actors. Unfortunately for Oladipo, casting is complete, otherwise he might qualify for the lead role, given the way he transformed the Pacers from street urchins begging for a win back into the princes who captured the hearts of their fan base before he went down.

It wasn't just his stats. His return seemed to help restore the demeanor, confidence and energy of his teammates. Having lost their last five games by an average of 15.6 points, the Pacers (20-19) never trailed after the first six minutes, and dominated the final three quarters. The 39-point win margin was their largest since a 39-point victory over Denver in February of 2014, and the 41-point lead they achieved midway through the fourth quarter was their largest of the season.

Oladipo downplayed his latest star turn. He described it with his favorite term that he applies to just about everything: "feathery."

"Whenever I go out there and just compete, we come out with a win," he said.

"I was just out there playing. Doing whatever I can to help my teammates. Just played Vic's game."

His game went like this at the start of Saturday's game:

He got a steal on Chicago's second offensive possession, after surprise starter Damien Wilkins blocked a shot on the first one. He followed with a tip-dunk of Thaddeus Young's missed layup in transition. He added a 3-pointer a minute later, then defended Justin Holiday's missed 3-pointer. Shortly thereafter, he assisted Myles Turner's open 3-pointer after drawing the defense.

Before he got a break with 3:40 left in the period, he had accumulated another steal and layup, an assist on Darren Collison's 3-pointer, a steal and breakaway dunk, another successful defense of a Holiday 3-pointer, and an assist of Turner's 19-footer. He finished his 8-minute, 20-second appearance with nine points, four assists, and five steals.

So much for the rust of a 10-day layoff.

"Just go out there play," he said. "Miss or make. No matter what happens, just play. That's my mentality. Just play with confidence. If the ball goes in, it goes in, if it doesn't, it doesn't."

His supporting cast was more enthused.

"Everybody was excited to have him back," said Domantas Sabonis, who scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, giving him 20 or more points in consecutive games for the first time in his career. "He makes it a lot easier. The defense focuses so much on him, it allowed things to happen. The floor spacing is so much better with him on the court."

Not to ruin the plotline, but Oladipo's return wasn't the only factor in the Pacers' dramatic turnaround. Coach Nate McMillan had put them through demanding practices on Thursday and Friday, returning to the preseason blue-collar mode that had helped them get five games above a .500 record in December.

Myles Turner, who scored 11 of his 13 points in the first quarter, gave Oladipo credit for creating open spaces for other players, but didn't overlook the practices.

"These past two days have been great for us," Turner said. "We got back to competing in practice and getting after it, and it translated onto the court.

"It was just different. We competed harder. We made it more like a training camp practice. We had to get back to that grind that we started the season with."

The Pacers played with more energy and purpose when Oladipo was out of the game as well. A reserve lineup of Sabonis, Lance Stephenson, Joe Young, Cory Joseph, and TJ Leaf opened the second period and quickly expanded a five-point lead to 20 midway through the period. It was 27 at halftime, and never less than 22 after that. The Bulls had won in Dallas Friday night and didn't arrive in Indianapolis until about 3 a.m., so the schedule favored the Pacers this time. But so did their own approach to the game.

"They just came out and laid the wood to us from start to finish," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

The Pacers' effort was unusually inclusive. Wilkins started in place of Bojan Bogdanovic, who was a late scratch because of a sprained left ankle. It was his first start in an NBA game since April 17, 2013, when he scored 15 points in the final game of the season. The Pacers rested all their starters but Stephenson that night, sending him out for the opening tip with Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, and D. J. Augustin.

Wilkins, who turns 38 on Jan. 11, finished with a season-high 11 in this one, hitting three-of-six 3-pointers in his 22 minutes. When asked if he remembered the last time he had started in an NBA game, Stephenson piped up from 15 feet away with "1952!"

Told later that Stephenson also had started in that game, Wilkins said, "He probably fouled me."

The 20-year-old Leaf provided another feel-good story to the game. Making his 30th appearance of the season, and playing double-figure minutes (19:35) for the first time since Dec. 4, the rookie forward hit all six of his field goal attempts and scored 15 points. Three of his shots were 3-pointers, and two were impressive dunks that got teammates off the bench.

"TJ's been working extremely hard," McMillan said. "He had two really good practices and showed some improvement on the defensive end of the floor. We're going to get him back into the rotation and allow him to play."

Oladipo was impressed as well.

"He was feathery, too," he said of Leaf.

"He works hard. What you give to the game the game will give to you. He's been working his butt off and it's paying off for him."

Joe Young continued his run of impressive play as well, scoring 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and helping spark the second-quarter rally with aggressive defense. He and Leaf looked like players who can allow McMillan to expand his playing rotation a bit further, or at least become capable stand-ins when players go down with injuries.

And so, just like that, the Pacers have again revised the storyline of their season. A magic carpet ride through the rest of the season is unreasonable. But with Oladipo back in the lead role, a good show seems guaranteed.

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