Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo was unstoppable against LeBron’s Cavs

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IndyStar’s J. Michael and Gregg Doyel discuss how the Indiana Pacers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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CLEVELAND – Victor Oladipo is smiling at Pacers assistant Bill Bayno. Picture a hawk smiling at a mouse. Like that.

This is Monday at Quicken Loans Arena, a day after the Indiana Pacers’ 98-80 rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of their NBA playoff series. Oladipo scored 32 points Sunday thanks to a new tool in his growing tool kit, and he’s about to show it to Bayno, who is standing at the 3-point arc and assuming the role of defender. And Oladipo, he’s backing up, dribbling between his legs with each step. He’s assuming the role of hawk.

This is Oladipo’s new move, his answer to the extra defensive attention that has come his way during his ascent from promising young player to flat-out star. All the great ones, they have something that cannot be stopped. LeBron James has that size and strength, James Harden has that step-back jumper, Kyrie Irving has that handle. And Oladipo has this thing he’s been doing for a few weeks now, this thing he did to the Cavaliers in Game 1, this thing LeBron described afterward as borderline unstoppable, “just a great player making a great play.”

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Oladipo is about to do this thing to Bayno, just because. Because Oladipo loves basketball. Because he’s a kid with a new toy. Because he can. He’s backing up almost to midcourt and Bayno is waiting at the 3-point arc and now Oladipo is coming forward fast, so fast, too fast. Oladipo is talking to Bayno as he’s attacking him: “If I can go by you? Guess what?”

Oladipo is gone, a sports car with so many gears, leaving Bayno in his wake at the 3-point arc. Bayno is smiling as Oladipo starts backing up again, dribbling between his legs with each step, but now Bayno is talking.

“What’re you gonna do now?” he’s asking Oladipo, taunting him, backing away from the arc as Oladipo starts to attack. Wait, what’s this? Oladipo is stopping and rising for a 3-pointer. Bayno is reacting and still taunting: “Then I’m gonna contest (your shot) …”

Too late. Way, way too late. The shot’s in the air. Now it’s in the basket. In fairness to Bayno, who turns 56 next month, he had no chance. Then again, Cleveland guard George Hill is just 31, the best perimeter defender the Cavaliers have – and Monday night in Game 1, he had no chance.

Oladipo has a new weapon.

This is Nate McMillan’s fault.

* * *

Victor Oladipo was slumping.

In the media, where we try our best but don’t always have the right answer, we chalked it up to: The wall. Oladipo was hitting it. He’d been carrying the Pacers all season, and instead of getting a week off at the All-Star break, he flew all the way to Los Angeles for the festivities. He played in the game, dunked in the slam-dunk contest, flew back to Indianapolis so very tired. That was the narrative being reported.

Fake news.

As it happens, as has been explained to me by men who would know, men who sit on the Pacers’ bench in coats and ties, after the All-Star break is when the NBA season gets real. Teams care, now. They are adjusting, now. The playoffs are coming and seeds are beckoning and now it’s time, if your opponent is the Indiana Pacers, to deal with Victor Oladipo.

So it changed. Teams were no longer defending him straight up, or even with one man and four other sets of eyeballs watching him, ready to help. No, now teams were throwing multiple defenders at Oladipo, getting physical with him, bullying him.

“Show him a crowd,” is how Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue put it before Game 1, when he was asked about defending Oladipo.

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Oladipo slumped. The numbers are clear. In 52 games before the All-Star break, he averaged 24.4 ppg and shot 48.4 percent from the floor overall, 38.1 percent on 3-pointers. Those were career bests for Oladipo. But in the first 15 games after the All-Star break, his scoring was down to 19.2 ppg. His shooting? Down to 41.1 percent overall, and 29.7 percent on 3s. The only number going up? Turnovers.

McMillan did some thinking. This was his responsibility. He was the one who had set Oladipo free back in October, summoning him to meeting after meeting during training camp, telling Oladipo he was a better player than his numbers in Orlando and Oklahoma City suggested. In his first four pro seasons, the former IU star had averaged 15.9 ppg. The numbers said he was very good.

No, Nate McMillan told Oladipo. You’re better than that. And we need more.

“Words can’t really describe that,” Oladipo says of those preseason pep talks. “My entire career, nobody’s done that.”

You saw what happened. Five games into the season Oladipo was averaging 26 ppg. The sixth game? That was against San Antonio, the game he won at the buzzer, then pointed to the floor. His city.

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But after the All-Star break, Oladipo was slumping. On the outside, we were speculating about the wall. On the inside, Nate McMillan saw what was happening: Opposing teams were showing Oladipo a crowd. He summoned Oladipo to another meeting. Here, McMillan said. Try this.

Oladipo has all sorts of high-level basketball skill and athletic ability, but he has one athletic trait that very few players – even in the athletic freak show of the NBA – can match: Speed. Lots of guys are fast, but Oladipo’s speed is on another level, a level that surprised even McMillan in the preseason. He’d coached against Oladipo for years. Knew he was fast. But there is fast, and there is fast. And Oladipo is fast.

Try this, McMillan was telling Oladipo: Get the ball and back up before the double team can come. How far back? As far as you want. Beyond shooting range. Back up, size up the defense and charge. Make the defender choose, McMillan was telling Oladipo: Move his feet and try beating you to the spot … or wave the white flag, backpedal as you approach, and let you dribble into an open 3-pointer.

Oladipo’s response? That smile.

* * *

Poor Jeff Green. He’s 6-9 with long arms and great feet, and he has no chance. Not against Oladipo, who backs up in the first quarter on Sunday and attacks. Alone on an island 25 feet from the basket, Green has no choice but to foul Oladipo.

Next time he has the ball, Oladipo backs up again. What was the animal analogy I used earlier, Oladipo as the hawk? Never mind that. Now Oladipo looks like a bull, backing up and pawing at the dirt and spotting a glint of red and just storming toward the rim. No dummy, Green backs up.

Oladipo stops for a 3-pointer. Bucket.

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Two possessions later: Oladipo gets a ball screen, which is where opponents have been double-teaming him since the All-Star break. Well, good luck with that, because now Oladipo is backing up, forcing the Cavaliers to switch defenders. He is isolating himself with the big man, Cavs power forward Larry Nance Jr., and while the 6-9, 230-pound Nance is one of the freakiest athletic freaks in this freaky league – runner-up to Donovan Mitchell in the 2018 NBA slam-dunk contest – he can’t match Oladipo’s speed. Oladipo is pawing at the dirt and charging and Nance is backing up and Oladipo stops for the easiest 3-pointer you ever saw.

A few minutes later he does it to George Hill, who backs off Oladipo for an easy 3-ponter in a move that might look like poor defense or worse, poor effort, but is neither. It’s merely Oladipo putting Hill in a blender and letting Hill choose which button gets pushed.

Here, some more statistics: Since that meeting with McMillan – not the pep talk before the season that set Oladipo free; I’m referring to the coaching tip about a month after the All-Star break – Oladipo has played nine games and averaged 23.4 ppg and shot 56.6 percent from the floor and 46.9 percent on 3-pointers.

In his final regular-season game against Charlotte he scored 27 points in 27 minutes. In the playoff opener against Cleveland he had 32 points in 37 minutes. No, Oladipo hasn’t perfected this new move of his. Teams double-team him and he chooses poorly at times, committing three turnovers against Charlotte and four against Cleveland. That’s the terrifying part about this whole deal: Oladipo will only get better at it. He’s still learning how to use that speed of his, when to mash the gas, when to pump the brakes.

And LeBron, whose genius for the game is mental as much as physical, understands what is happening here: There really isn’t a defense for what Oladipo is doing. When he backs up and takes off, he’s in control. He’ll make the shot or he won’t, but the Cavaliers are all, essentially, witnesses.

“We don’t have to make a lot of adjustments, especially defensively,” LeBron was saying after Game 1. “We were in a really good position. Look at Oladipo’s (3-pointers). Four were straight-up pushes as hard as he can and pull up and jack it in your face. That’s not scheme. That’s just a great player making a great play.”

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter: @GreggDoyelStar or at facebook.com/gregg.doyel.

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