The Indiana Pacers have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the first quarter of the 2017-18 NBA season, bouncing back from trading away All-Star forward Paul George to remain a solidly competitive team in the Eastern Conference thanks to a top-10 offense piloted by Victor Oladipo. The former Indiana University star and No. 2 overall draft pick has taken advantage of the opportunity to step into the spotlight for the Pacers, averaging career highs in virtually every statistical category while serving as the leading scorer and playmaker for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations.
Oladipo continued his strong start to the season on Wednesday, rousing a sluggish Pacers team that had fallen behind the lowly Chicago Bulls by as many as 17 points in the first half and by 13 points after three quarters to produce a big fourth-quarter comeback. He cranked up the heat late, keying a 19-4 run over the final seven minutes and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with a bit of two-way, final-minute brilliance:
After Bulls guard Denzel Valentine lost the handle while trying to drive against Bojan Bogdanovic with a two-point lead and just under 40 seconds left, Oladipo scooped up the loose ball, dribbled up court and, seeing no Chicago defender stepping up to stop the ball, decided to step into a pull-up 3-pointer in transition.
“I was surveying the scene at first,” he told reporters after the game. “Just seeing who was back, how many people were back. And nobody stopped me. So I could’ve kept going and drove into the defense, or pull up for the 3, shoot the ball with confidence. And that’s what I did.”
Oladipo splashed that in-rhythm look down, giving the Pacers a 97-96 lead with 30.1 seconds remaining, sending the fans in the stands into hysterics and reminding everyone watching just whose house Bankers Life Fieldhouse is these days:
The Bulls got two cracks at answering, but came up empty on both. Point guard Kris Dunn missed a stepback jumper with 19 seconds left that would’ve put Chicago back on top. After Oladipo rebounded the miss, got fouled, and split a pair of free throws, the Bulls tried to dial up a 3-point look to go for the win on the road, but rookie Lauri Markkanen’s shot clanged clear, allowing the Pacers to finish off a 98-96 win. You don’t get a whole lot of style points for needing a furious late comeback to beat one of the NBA’s very worst teams, but you do get a mark in the win column, which improves Nate McMillan’s club to 14-11 on the season.
After scoring 11 of his game-high 27 points (to go with eight rebounds, three steals and two assists) in the fourth quarter to propel the Pacers to the win, Oladipo stepped in front of the camera for a post-game interview with Fox Sports Indiana sideline reporter Jeremiah Johnson. He just had something important to take care of first:
— FOX Sports Indiana (@FSIndiana) December 7, 2017
As negative reinforcement goes, charging yourself 10 pushups for missing a late-game free throw that could have put the Pacers up three, thus eliminating any chance the Bulls had of going for the win on their last shot, is a pretty decent form of self-flagellation. Let’s all be thankful for the broadcast’s sake that Oladipo didn’t do any worse from 3-for-4 at the stripe on Wednesday; Johnson might have been standing there with his microphone for an uncomfortable amount of time.
Oladipo has stepped confidently and comfortably into the role as Indiana’s late-game closer. He’s now averaging 28.6 points per 36 minutes of fourth-quarter work, good for 10th in the NBA among players with at least 50 final-frame minutes. (George, for what it’s worth, has accounted for 20.1-per-36 fourth-quarter minutes in Oklahoma City, tied for 67th.) With him riding as high as he’s been since opening night, the Pacers never seem to feel like they’re out of a game, and McMillan never has any qualms about trusting Oladipo with the rock when Indy needs a score.
“Victor made some big shots in that fourth quarter, and that transition 3 to put us ahead just shows the confidence that he’s playing with,” McMillan said. “I think, certainly, he feels comfortable in that situation. He’s shooting the ball with a great deal of confidence and, you know, that’s a huge shot […] Yeah, I want the ball in his hands. The team wants the ball in his hands. He can make plays for himself, as well as creating opportunities for teammates.”
That, plus they know that if he gets to the free throw line and misses one, they’re going to get to watch him get his Willie “Mays” Hayes on. So, y’know, total win-win.
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