For a while there, it was a nostalgic flashback. Perhaps a glimpse of the future as well.
In the ninth game of his interrupted comeback, Victor Oladipo finally bore a striking resemblance to Victor Oladipo in the Pacers' victory over Portland on Thursday. Not for all of the 25 minutes, 50 seconds he played, but for longer stretches than before, and most notably during a third quarter stretch in which he scored 12 of his 15 points.
He raced the ball upcourt for transition layups. He drove into the lane for a floater. He took a pass in transition and smoothly nailed a 3-pointer. He did some things that don't show up on stat lines, too, such as utilizing his sprinter's speed to get open shots for teammates or making defensive plays that contributed to missed shots.
He did some undesirable things as well, things that reminded that his comeback remains in the present tense. He had four turnovers, including one with 3:11 left and another at 2:13 when the Pacers could have but didn't put the game away. He also missed a 3-pointer with 39.1 seconds remaining that would have clinched the game, leaving that privilege to Myles Turner instead.
He acknowledged the stuttering nature of his quest to recapture his skills in an on-court interview with TNT afterward.
"It's like I want to do it, but my body is like, Hold, on, wait a second," he said. "Eventually it will catch up to my mind. And I'm just going to keep playing. Everything else will take care of itself."
"Keep playing" is the only solution, despite the speed bumps in his path. The Pacers likely cannot achieve their goal of advancing past the first round of the playoffs without Oladipo playing at something near his peak level, and Thursday's performance was an encouraging step in that direction. There are 23 games still to be played before the postseason, so he has time — probably not as much as he needs, but enough to have more segments along the lines of the one from 10:09 to 5:49 in the third period on Thursday.
Oladipo began his flurry with a rebound of CJ McCollum's missed shot and raced downcourt with it, drawing a foul in the lane from Carmelo Anthony. He hit both free throws. He hit a 15-foot floater on the Pacers' next possession, that drew a foul from McCollum and converted the three-point play. He missed a driving layup 17 seconds later but hit one less than a minute later.
"He shows signs of getting that lift and explosion back," TNT analyst Reggie Miller said on the broadcast.
Later, with 7 1/2 minutes left, Oladipo drained a 3-pointer in transition to tie the game and force a Portland timeout. Miller praised the perfect rhythm of the shot. He added a scooped layup off a deflected pass a couple of minutes later before taking a seat for the rest of the quarter.
With outbursts such as that, the Pacers can live with the occasional rust stain. They have no choice, especially with Jeremy Lamb out for the rest of the season regardless of the capable backup support Justin Holiday has provided since Lamb's injury.
It's easy for outsiders to question the faltering nature of Oladipo's comeback. He's averaging just 11.2 points on 35 percent shooting in the nine games he has played since Jan. 29, sitting out one at the end of a back-to-back set and missing two others because of a lower back strain. His shots often appear awkward and he has nearly as many turnovers (20) as assists (23). Didn't he have an entire year to work his way back from his torn quad muscle? Hadn't he been practicing with the Pacers in varying degrees since the start of training camp?
TNT's studio analysts addressed that issue before Thursday's game when the question was posed how long Oladipo should need to return to his All-Star form.
Photo Credit: Matt Kryger
"I don't think you can have that injury, jump in and be judged on this year," Kenny Smith said. "It's different between rehabbing all summer and working out all summer. When you work out all summer, your jumper's on, your timing's right. He'll get an opportunity now to possibly work out all summer and not rehab all summer."
Oladipo has started six games since coming off the bench for the first three after his return, but the Pacers have yet to establish their intended starting lineup of Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner. That group has played together for a grand total of an hour in five games, with mixed results. It has a slightly positive rating, but Thursday's game was rather typical of the inevitable inconsistency of the group as it tries to get acquainted.
It played together for the first 7:08 of the game and gained a four-point advantage. It did so again at the start of the third quarter for 7:12 and was even with the Blazers. It was regrouped for the final 4:27 (other than the final 9.1 seconds) but was outscored by four points.
Oladipo deserves credit for adjusting his approach. His nature is to seek the limelight, to be a star, and that's a good quality for an athlete to have. But it needs to be within a team concept, especially when he's regaining his health and his touch. That dramatic game-tying 3-pointer in his debut against Chicago only seemed to fuel his desire to be dominant, but he wasn't ready for that. He averaged 14 field goal attempts in his next five games, hitting just 30 percent of them. And the Pacers lost all five.
In his three games since then, beginning with the one against Milwaukee before the All-Star break, he's averaged eight shots and hit 54 percent of them. And the Pacers won all three.
Another TNT analyst, Shaquille O'Neal, praised Oladipo for stepping back before the game.
"It's hard for a superstar to say, 'You know what, I don't have it, let me be a role player,'" O'Neal said. "When he came back, he was trying to be the Victor Oladipo of old and it's kind of thrown the team off a little bit. If he'd just take his time, let all the other guys do what they do and he just says, 'I'm a role player until I get 100 percent,' I think they'll (play much better)."
McMillan emphasized ball movement at halftime of Thursday's game, telling his players they needed to go beyond the first or second option in their halfcourt offense and get to the third or fourth. The message was taken to heart on their first possession of the second half when they made nine passes before Myles Turner hit a rushed sideways heave from the right corner a split second ahead of the shot clock buzzer. It was a lucky shot, one that had Miller laughing on the broadcast, but it also was a just reward.
Oladipo can be a vital cog in that approach with his ability to drive, draw defenders and dish. There's a reason the Pacers were 21-3 two seasons ago when he took 15 shots or fewer and on a similar track last season when he played. But he also brings the ability to score or get quick and easy points for teammates in transition, something desperately needed for a team that ranks 25th in the NBA in pace. McMillan emphasized that as well. All part of his "play early or play late" philosophy that seeks easy points in transition or patient points in the halfcourt offense but discourages rushed shots in between.
Oladipo's gift to the Pacers was on display during his 12-point run in the third period of Thursday, when the Pacers had 15 of their 19 fastbreak points. It will be needed even more often against the better teams they face the rest of the way as they attempt to earn a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference.
"To see Victor play like that...it gave us the boost we needed because we kind of got lulled to sleep before the end of the first half," Justin Holiday said. "It was big for us. We rode that wave and continued on."
"We got to the tempo we wanted," McMillan added. "Vic was a big part of that."
Oladipo brings pace to the defense as well. He draws charging fouls (a team-leading six so far), he gets in the way of passing lanes, he gets to long rebounds and he gets out to contest perimeter shots.
"When he's flying around like that it does something to our defense," Myles Turner said.
Oladipo isn't yet the first-team all-defense player he was two seasons ago. He needs time to get his game back on that end as well. But the hints of his past are beginning to look like statements.
"All he needs is repetition," O'Neal said.
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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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