Pacers Plugging Into Oladipo's Energy Supply

One of the themes flowing through the Pacers locker room following their rout of Golden State Thursday was whether it was one of those measuring stick games against an elite opponent that lets a team know where it stands.

Let's be honest, it wasn't. It was more meaningful than the win at Golden State nine days earlier, when the Warriors were missing four starters, but this version of the defending NBA champions was lacking, too. Lacking Steph Curry, lacking Andre Iguodala and, frankly, lacking motivation. The Warriors are locked into the second seed in the Western Conference and are biding their time before the playoffs begin.

"Just in general, it's hard to win an NBA game if you don't put forth any effort at all," coach Steve Kerr said afterward.

"Yeah, I'm mad. I'm embarrassed. I know this game doesn't mean anything in the seeding, but the playoffs start next week. It was an embarrassing effort. Pathetic effort."

Note how that word came up three times: effort. That's what was impressive about the Pacers' victory. Their effort. They could have fallen back on the age-old (and mostly valid) excuse about the first home game after a long road trip being an extension of the road trip and really difficult to win, but they didn't. They showed opening-night energy while dominating a marquee opponent, thrilling a sellout crowd that included plenty of Warriors fans.

Let's also be honest about the primary source of the Pacers' energy, which has been as consistent this season as any in franchise history: Victor Oladipo. The Pacers have never had a player like him, either on the court — where he's setting franchise records for thievery — or in the locker room — where he's setting franchise records for frivolity.

"He has the most energy of anybody I've ever seen," 11-year veteran Thaddeus Young said. "I've not seen him have one bad day. Maybe one bad day, but that's it. He's one of the most positive teammates I've ever had. I think a lot of the stuff we're able to do this year is from his positivity."

Oladipo scored 21 points on Thursday, his sixth straight game of 21 or more, but more and more often his best work is coming on defense. He had three steals, setting a franchise record for having at least that many in six consecutive games. He also improved his streak of consecutive games with a steal to 62, also a franchise record.

All three of his steals on Thursday came within a fourth-quarter stretch of less than three minutes, when the Pacers quickly and rudely turned back a brief Golden State rally that had reduced their lead to 10 points. His first steal led to Bojan Bogdanovic's layup. His second drew an immediate foul by Draymond Green. His third steal led to his own breakaway dunk and opened a 26-point lead, the largest of the game.

Oladipo's season-closing burst of energy is a relief and inspiration for the Pacers. After the All-Star break, he acknowledged the possibility of fatigue. He hit just 5-of-16 shots in the first game back, a victory over Atlanta, then sat out practice the following day under orders from coach Nate McMillan.

Don't bother asking him about that now, though. He doesn't acknowledge anything lacking "positivity."

"I don't remember," he said. "My short-term memory, man. I don't remember that."

This is a game Oladipo plays with reporters. Bring up a partly cloudy topic, even one from long ago, and his mind suddenly goes blank.

The team's ability to put out a strong effort following the long road trip?

"It was a long road trip? It was, huh?" he said.

Have you every felt worn out?

"Worn out? I don't even know what that means. That's not in my vocabulary. Worn out? What's that mean?"

Grasping for the right word, the reporter asked if he's felt slower, at any point this season.

"Slow?!" Oladipo shot back, then broke into a laughter.

"I'm just playing with you," he added. "I can't really remember. I feel great right now. A year ago this time I probably couldn't say the same."

A year ago this time, while playing for Oklahoma City, Oladipo was definitely feeling worn out. There was a four-game stretch about this time when he averaged 9.5 points on 31 percent shooting, with less than one steal per game. That's what motivated him to initiate a rigorous offseason diet and workout program that dropped 20 pounds and sharpened his skills.

Now, he's getting better as he goes. His scoring average and field goal percentage have dropped a bit since the All-Star break, but the ongoing streaks of 21 or more points and three or more steals is proof that he's accelerating toward the finish line.

Is he getting a second wind?

"I don't even know when it came," he said. "I just continued to keep playing and eventually I started feeling great."

That feeling radiates throughout the roster and ranks as the primary reason the Pacers have exceeded expectations by such as wide margin. Thursday's victory improved their record to 47-32 and kept their hope alive of earning homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Their energy rarely lags because Oladipo's never lags.

It's a reason Bojan Bogdanovic, who scored 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting on Thursday, is having his best NBA season. Especially on defense, where he was a factor in Kevin Durant hitting just 8-of-23 shots, including 2-of-10 3-pointers.

"He's right now one of the best two-way players in the league," Bogdanovic said of Oladipo. "His steals and pressuring on the defense pushes us to be a little closer to our guys and play better defense."

Lance Stephenson, who was solid with nine points, six rebounds, and three assists in 16 minutes off the bench, is famous for his relentless energy. But he's never quite seen anyone like Oladipo, who brings it even on practice days.

"Vic is amazing," Stephenson said. "He brings it every night. I haven't seen any down time for him during the season."

Just then, Oladipo walked by, doing what he always does after finishing his shower: carrying a wireless speaker blaring jazz music and singing along.

"Look at him," Stephenson said, laughing.

"I've never seen him tired, never seen him down, nothing," Stephenson went on. "It travels through the whole team. Even if I'm having a bad day, I see him and I'm like, 'Oh, yeah.' I can get it going."

The Pacers all have it going, having won six of their past seven games amid the most difficult stretch of their season. Three regular season games remain — Friday at Toronto, Sunday at Charlotte, and Tuesday at home against Charlotte. Fifty victories is still within reach.

They're beyond measuring themselves against an elite team, though. The only measurement is their own consistency and whatever opponent happens to await them.

"The goal is go into every game and win it," Oladipo said. "We look forward to competing against everybody."

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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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