There was a play toward the end of the third quarter Sunday that concisely summarized the winning formula upon which the Pacers have settled since Victor Oladipo's return.
The ball was reversed to Oladipo on the left wing. He was open for a 3-pointer, but he passed off to Doug McDermott in the left corner instead. McDermott hit the shot, giving the Pacers a four-point lead and forcing a New York timeout with 3:28 left.
"Beautiful," Darren Collison said, referring to Oladipo's overall performance rather than just that one moment. "He's been playing like that the last three games."
Over the past three games, since Oladipo returned from a sore right knee that kept him out of the previous 11 games and most of a 12th, Oladipo has shown a revised offensive approach that has proven to make the Pacers nearly unbeatable. With him shooting less and passing more, they've have been able to continue the balanced approach they established while he was sitting, watching, and learning from the bench, all while clearly benefiting from his defense and playmaking ability in close games.
In the latest one, a 110-99 Pacers victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Oladipo scored 26 points on just 13 field goal attempts, and added eight rebounds, seven assists and five steals. He was the Pacers' best player, but hardly the only effective one because he didn't dominate the offense. Myles Turner scored 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting. Domantas Sabonis had a routine double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, his league-leading 12th off the bench. Bojan Bogdanovic ran his streak of double-figure scoring games to 21 with 12 points. Thaddeus Young, sensational over the previous four games, was back to being solid with 10 points on just nine field goal attempts and six rebounds.
All in all, it seemed the perfect game for Chapter 2 of Oladipo's season. He fattened his point total by hitting seven-of-eight free throws in the final 89 seconds, when the Knicks had to foul to stop the clock, but he still played one of his most efficient games as a member of the Pacers. The only one that compares with it this season would be their 20-point victory at San Antonio in October, when he scored 21 points on 12 shots and had nine assists.
Beyond that, it continued a trend that dates back to the start of last season. The Pacers are now 28-3 when he takes 15 or fewer field goal attempts. All three of the losses came last season, and included fluke elements that contributed to the loss.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
It's seems safe to say Oladipo is back, both physically and emotionally. He played to the crowd, raising his hands to ask for applause late in the game, and was making joyful noises again in the locker room. He took his wireless speaker into the shower area, blasting out a couple of Dean Martin classics while singing along: "You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You," and "Everybody Loves Somebody."
He even stopped in front of Kyle O'Quinn's locker to dance a little while making his way. O'Quinn, legs stretched out on an adjacent chair as he perused his phone, could only shake his head and smile.
Oladipo inspired smiles throughout the Pacers' organization on Sunday. Or, at the very least, praise.
"We want our guys to be efficient," coach Nate McMillan said. "I thought he took good shots, and when there were double-teams he gave up the ball. It's a simple game. We've been talking about this all season long; play the game the right way."
It's telling that Oladipo hasn't taken the most shots in any of the three games since he returned. Turner took the most on Sunday and in Wednesday's victory over Milwaukee, and Young took the most in Friday's win at Philadelphia. Keep in mind, before his injury, Oladipo had taken more than twice as many shots as any of his teammates. It's also revealing that Oladipo has averaged 7.3 assists in the three games since his return, compared to 4.7 in the 16 games before his injury.
"Conservative. Picking his spots," Collison said. "I just think that stretch where he was out … he always had respect for the team, but he saw what he was working with. He realized you don't have to play hero ball every time...not that he was, but now he's doing both. He's picking his spots. And when the game comes to him, he's being our closer."
That's where Oladipo was missed most during his absence, and where he's been the most influential in the previous two games. Over the last three minutes of the victory at Philadelphia, he hit a 20-foot jumper, assisted on two layups for Young after penetrating into the lane and assisted on Cory Joseph's 3-pointer.
Sunday, he hit a 3-pointer that opened a six-point lead with 5:16 left, then grabbed three defensive rebounds within the next two minutes and, finally, made the clinching free throws.
"Just trying to make the right plays," Oladipo said.
"I'm still playing my game. It doesn't necessarily mean I have to score every time. I can make the hockey assist. I can impact the game in different ways. I've been playing my game, just picking my spots and being smart out there."
Everybody loves somebody like that.
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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