INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — From day one of this basketball season, Victor Oladipo has been a rising star with moments of superstardom, a revelation for a Pacers team that was long ago supposed to be enjoying the off-season in the Caribbean. The fact the Pacers are even here, sitting at two games apiece after Sunday’s gut-wrenching 104-100 Game 4 loss to the Cavs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, is a testament to how good Oladipo has been as a player and as a leader. There’s a reason they were 0-7 without him that season; he's that important to this group.
Here, then, is the problem.
When your best player isn't your best player — and Oladipo’s 5-of-20 shooting Sunday followed a 5-of-15 clank-fest in Game 3 — you have almost no chance to beat LeBron James four times in a playoff series. Check that: You have NO chance to beat James four times in a playoff series. My math says that's 10-of-35 in the last two games, and it's enough to make you wonder if Oladipo is paying the price for having carried such a heavy load all season — not to mention the fact the Cavaliers are trapping and doubling Oladipo virtually every time he touches the basketball.
"I missed some shots I normally make," said Oladipo, who was wearing a white sweatshirt with black lettering that read, "Feathery." "They did a good job doubling me. I've just got to go back to the drawing board, watch film, get better.’"
I asked Oladipo if he's the type of person who stews over a sub-standard game or if he's blessed with instant amnesia.
"I'm a person that learns," he said. "However you want to define that, that's what I am. I learn from it and I make sure I'm better the next game. Obviously, it's a tough loss. It doesn't feel good but at the end of the day, it's a series. You've got to be even-keeled."
When asked about Oladipo's struggles, Nate McMillan pointed to the bigger picture. "I thought we, as a team, forced some shots," he said. "We took some quick shots. We just didn't play the game the right way, and it wasn't just Victor. I thought we, as a unit, played the game like that. This group has played the game the right way. Sometimes you get into games like this, emotional games, and you're so pumped up that sometimes you try to do things yourself, and a lot of times, it doesn't work."
On a night when the Pacers had a chance to put a stranglehold on this series, a night when they fought back from yet another dismal start and found themselves leading 92-89 with 6:12 remaining, Oladipo and his teammates failed to put the vulnerable Cavaliers away and nearly put an end to James' personal reign of terror. After that moment, the Cavs outscored the Pacers 12-3 to take a 101-95 lead and outscored the home team 15-8 in the final 6:12.
"We kind of settled and didn't get the looks that we want the last couple of minutes," Darren Collison said. "You've got to give credit to (Kyle) Korver because he hit some very tough shots. They did what they had to do. It's a series now."
This was the performance the Cavaliers had to have after three shaky outings, two of them losses. James got the support he's been wanting: Kyle Korver, noted Pacers' killer, scored 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting from behind the arc. Larry Nance, Jr. had six points. Jordan Clarkson had 12 points. Rodney Hood added six and Jeff Green, a cipher so far in this series, added eight points.
Again, it's really quite simple. Outside of Myles Turner, who was 7-of-9 and scored 17 points, the four other Pacers’ starters combined to shoot 19-of-59. Oladipo couldn't find his shot. Collison, who had such a marvelous regular season, continued to struggle with his shot, finishing 5-of-14. Thaddeus Young (5-of-12) and Bojan Bogdanovic (4-of-13) couldn't find the range. Domantas Sabonis came off the bench and was a game-changer, finishing with 19 points and six rebounds, but in the end, it wasn't enough.
Maybe the Pacers should have known this wasn't going to be their night near the end of the first half, when J.R. Smith took two dribbles to his left and heaved a three-quarters-court shot that went in at the buzzer. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Smith is the fifth player to make a 60-foot shot over the last 20 post-seasons. In the 2017-18 season, players were 1-for-177 from that distance. So yeah, it was a prayer, and it was answered. (There are stats for everything.)
They fought back because they always fight back; they now own the NBA record for most victories after coming back from a double-digit halftime deficit. But these slow starts are an issue, just the way the Colts' failures to finish became their calling card last season. It's got to change.
"We don’t want to keep putting ourselves in the position where we have to constantly keep climbing back into the game because it’s going to make you pay," Collison said. "The game is going to make you pay. We’ve got to be able to play a full 48 minutes."
So the series, for all intents and purposes, begins all over again in Cleveland Wednesday, a best two-out-of-three games. If the Pacers hope to pull off the upset, to “shock the world’’ in Oladipo's words, their best player has got to be their best player, and he's got to be their best player at least two more times.