Victor Oladipo has been hot all season, and he kept it going in Game 1 of the playoffs, roasting the Cavaliers for 32 points Sunday while leading his Pacers to a surprisingly thorough, 98-80 victory. Not that the fifth-year guard, in just his second postseason series, lacked motivation in going up against LeBron James and Co., but after the win he acknowledged that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert had added “fuel to the fire.”
This has been a long-simmering issue for Oladipo, given that the inflammatory comments to which he was referring came almost nine months ago. That was when Gilbert said of the offseason trade that landed the Pacers Oladipo, as well as Domantas Sabonis, for a disgruntled Paul George: “I will say Indiana could have done better than they did.”
Gilbert was assumed then to be still unhappy over his own team’s failed effort to acquire George, reportedly after he thought a deal had been struck in June to bring the all-star swingman to Cleveland in a three-way trade that would have shipped Kevin Love to Denver and sent Gary Harris and some other pieces to the Pacers. In fairness, many at the time would have agreed with the owner that the Pacers didn’t get an impressive haul for George, particularly given that Oladipo, widely thought to be a solid but unspectacular combo guard, was in the first year of a four-year, $84 million contract extension.
However, in his return to the state where he starred in college for the Hoosiers, and arguably freed from the limits of being a supporting-cast member to Russell Westbrook, not to mention from the dysfunction of the Magic in his first three NBA seasons, Oladipo blossomed. He notched career highs in points (23.1), rebounds (5.2) and assists (4.3), and his 2.4 steals led the NBA — with George (2.0) coming in a distant second.
All that has made Oladipo a leading contender for NBA most improved player honors, and it served as a fitting prelude to Sunday’s performance, when he hit 11 of 19 shots, added six rebounds, four assists and four steals and helped snap James’s personal 21-game winning streak in the first round. Afterward, the Pacers star was asked about being seemingly slighted by Gilbert back in July, and while he downplayed the pertinent remark to some degree, he noted that was “aware of it.”
“You could say it added fuel to the fire, I guess you could say,” Oladipo told reporters. “But that was so long ago.
“It came up recently, obviously, because we were playing the Cavs in the series, but I’m aware of what he said. Can’t control his opinion. All I’m focused on is myself and becoming the best Victor Oladipo possible.”
The D.C.-area native, who went to DeMatha High, has certainly become a far better Victor Oladipo than some expected, at least so quickly after being traded to Indiana. He was selected this year to his first All-Star Game while fulfilling much of the promise that made him the No. 2 overall pick by Orlando in the 2013 draft — after Gilbert’s Cavs surprisingly opted for Anthony Bennett at No. 1, only for him to become a major bust — and he led a Pacers squad ticketed for a berth in the draft lottery to 48 wins.
Pacers Coach Nate McMillan would hardly have been blamed for making sure, before the series, that Oladipo was reminded of being dissed by the owner of the opposing team, but McMillan said Sunday (via ESPN), “I haven’t used that type of information as bulletin board material.” However, he added, “Now, I’m sure our guys have heard that. I’m sure Victor, somebody might have told him that here in the last couple days.”
The most important factor for McMillan, though, was the “confidence” with which Oladipo played. “We talked about some of the things that Cleveland would do,” the coach said. “I thought he recognized those and did a good job of attacking.
“He’s been a guy who has created a lot of things for us on both ends of the floor.”
Gilbert, meanwhile, may be regretting having created a bit of an unnecessary headache for his squad, particularly as, before his comments, he had not even been prompted for his opinion on the Pacers’ trade. As it turns out, Indiana could hardly have done better, and it is the owner’s heavily favored team that will have to give something much closer to its best to wrest the series back from a fired-up Oladipo and his teammates.
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