The brash statement invited a bold comparison that already seems timely, even a mere six games into the season.
“This is my city!”
Victor Oladipo, having just hit an off-balance, timeout-inducing 3-pointer that turned out to be the difference in the Pacers’ 97-94 victory over San Antonio Sunday, turned and shouted that while the fans in Bankers Life Fieldhouse were going crazy. Crazy over his shot with 10.3 seconds left and crazy over this team, which came from nine points down midway through the fourth quarter to pick up one of the more improbable victories seen around these parts in quite a while.
Six games into his Pacers’ career, Oladipo is averaging 25.5 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 47 percent from the 3-point line. He’s led the Pacers’ scoring each game, and has fast become a fan favorite for his combination of reckless abandonment when he’s attacking the basket and poised shooting when he’s not.
But, his city? Oladipo is new to the Pacers and new to Indianapolis, although not new to Indiana, having built a fan base during his collegiate career at Indiana University. His city? Already?
“I really believe that,” Oladipo told Fox Sports Indiana’s Jeremiah Johnson in an on-court interview after the game. “Everything happens for a reason. I feel I belong here. I’m supposed to be here for a reason.”
It was inevitable that Oladipo’s statement would dredge up memories of Paul George, who made similar claims upon hitting big shots with the Pacers — most memorably last March 20, when he hit a game-winner over Utah’s Gordon Hayward with 18.9 seconds remaining. George, or course, turned his back on “his city.” His agent, Aaron Mintz, made a surprising trade request that hit Pacers president Kevin Pritchard like a “gut punch.”
George of course was traded to Oklahoma City for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, who also sparkled on Sunday, and look what we have here: a deal that was widely regarded as a steal for the Thunder is looking like one of the best exchanges the Pacers have ever made. It could look even better long-term should George opt out of his contract to play somewhere other than Oklahoma City after this season.
It’s easy to pick on George now. Mob mentality is in full force in the wake of the Pacers’ 3-3 start that’s exceeding the expectations of all those people who were predicting a 30-win season, particularly with Oladipo and Sabonis exceeding expectations more than anyone. George, at least, deserves credit for letting his agent warn the
Pacers to make a trade last summer, rather than getting nothing in return for him next summer. It’s also not right to make an exact comparison of stats, two-for-one never being a fair fight. Still, the production can’t be denied.
Sabonis scored a career-high 22 points and matched his career high with 12 rebounds on Sunday. He was 9-of-9 from the field, pitching his third “perfect game” after two 7-of-7 outings. He’s now averaging 13 points on 66 percent shooting and 10.2 rebounds for the season. Starting at center since Myles Turner suffered a concussion in the season-opening game, he’s become increasingly featured in the offense, setting endless screens and scoring in a variety of ways — rolls to the basket, offensive rebounds, mid-range shots, and, for the first time this season, a 3-pointer.
“I just try to go out there and try to make the right read,” he said.
He did it all while playing with a stuffy nose and scratchy throat, having picked up a head cold on the road trip that ended last Wednesday in Oklahoma City. Quiet by nature, he was even more subdued upon entering the locker room for Sunday’s game.
“He’s really, really sick,” Oladipo said. “Damo didn’t even say good morning to me. I felt a certain way about that.”
“I hope I get sick more often,” Sabonis said, smiling but a bit bleary-eyed.
Oladipo’s deadpan joke was indicative of the chemistry that appears to be brewing within the Pacers’ roster. It showed in several ways on Sunday. Not just in the way they hung together while making their comeback, but in some subtle ways as well.
Oladipo, for example, gave the game ball to teammate Glenn Robinson III, who is sitting out with a sprained ankle.
Turner, for another example, hugged Oladipo tightly in the locker room afterward and said, “Good shot, boy!”
And, Darren Collison was quick to heap praise on 37-year-old Damien Wilkins, who didn’t play but stepped up during the down-the-stretch timeouts.
“Damien said, ‘just stay with it,'” Collison recalled. “You just never know in a ballgame like that what can happen. We just so happened to make some plays down the stretch.”
Said Wilkins: “I was just telling the guys, ‘Hey there’s a lot of game left.’ We were a couple of baskets away from…well, from what happened. I was trying to keep the guys up, keep the guys encouraged.
“We finished the game the right way. We got some stops. We locked in defensively. Typically, what happens is you knock a shot down and the defensive intensity picks up. It should be that all the time. I kept telling guys, ‘Stay with it, stay with it.’ Our defense picked up and we disrupted some things they wanted to do offensively, and here we are. It was a great win.”
A rare one, too. The Pacers entered the game 8-31 against Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and one of those came in San Antonio in the 2013-14 season when San Antonio was coming off a difficult travel situation after a game in Mexico City was cancelled because of a leaky roof.
The Spurs had the best winning percentage of an NBA team against the Pacers over the past 20 years (31-8), and even without starters Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker possess a degree of savvy that had enabled them to get off to a 4-0 start before losing in Orlando on Friday.
They appeared to have Sunday’s game in hand after overcoming the Pacers’ first-quarter 11-point lead. Their offense was humming, and their defense was forcing the Pacers into forced shots. Their 82-73 lead with 6:35 left seemed insurmountable, given the history between the two teams.
The Thunder Twins, Oladipo and Sabonis, led the comeback, scoring 22 of the Pacers’ 29 fourth-quarter points. Oladipo had 13 of them. He hit a 3-pointer off Collison’s assist with 4:44 left, then converted a three-point play off Sabonis’ screen to give the Pacers a three-point lead with 1:53 remaining.
The Pacers were trailing by three points, however, in the final half-minute. Thaddeus Young missed a driving shot, but the rebound controlled the rebound. Oladipo then ran off Sabonis’ baseline screen to pick up 6-11 LaMarcus Aldridge as a defender. Going one-on-one, Oladipo dribbled, juked Aldridge, then took a quick dribble to his left and lofted a well-defended 27-footer from the left wing with the shot clock down to a few seconds.
“It looked good; it felt good,” Oladipo said. “I didn’t want to shoot it that far, but it felt good.”
Despite being slightly off-balance.
“The follow-through makes you get on balance,” he said. “I was always taught when you step back, shoot a little higher.”
The victory wasn’t just about Oladipo and Sabonis, however. Four starters scored in double figures and Collison had eight points, six assists, and two turnovers. The Pacers’ starters, in fact, dominated San Antonio’s starters, each of them amassing a plus-minus rating of at least +14.
“We’re just trying to do it by committee,” Collison said. “We understand we have no All-Stars on this team. We have very good players on this team and if we have to do it by committee to win games, let’s do it. There are teams that do it that way, and don’t rely on one guy.”
Because a city can belong to more than just one player.
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