As Victor Oladipo blew past J.R. Smith and put LeBron James on a poster dunk, all I could think about was how terrible the situation had to be for LeBron to put himself in the line of fire. Earlier in the game, LeBron was allowing the easy bucket rather than trying to contest the shot. Hedid so on the fast break that ended with the Oladipo reverse dunk and another fast break that ended with LeBron stepping away from under the rim to allow Domantas Sabonis to finish.
Those were times when the game was still in range and it was better for LeBron to preserve himself, his body, and his pride. But when Oladipo took off towards the end of the third quarter, LeBron had no choice but to put himself in danger. The Cavaliers were being dominated, Oladipo was having his way with his defenders, and Indiana’s lead had ballooned to 16. Something had to be done.
Unfortunately for the king, his attempt to stop Oladipo went the same way as all of Cleveland’s efforts to challenge Indiana in the game.
Oladipo THROWS IT DOWN on LeBron. pic.twitter.com/UtkDQjwc9l— ESPN (@espn) April 28, 2018
Oladipo, like the Pacers this year, is remarkable. He stands as evidence of the silliness of sports predictions. At the beginning of the season, no one expected that Oladipo would be the player that he is today. There was no real reason to believe that the Pacers would push the Cavaliers to a game 7 thanks to a Game 6 blowout.
That’s not a fault of experts or fans, it’s one of the miracles of sports. To predict how something will be in the future is to expect time and life to move in a linear fashion. It’s to expect the things that we know now to continue in a forward progress.
It’s to think that LeBron would begin to diminish in in his 15th season, as every player his age and with his mileage has. It’s also to think that since the Pacers lost their best player in Paul George, they would dramatically diminish in stature, at least for a time.
Yet here we are where both of those ideas have been made to look foolish. One because special players are exempt from our standard limits, and the other because sometimes a good player can become great all of a sudden and intrude on what we know and expect.
There are a lot of heroes in the Pacers’ unexpected success, including Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanović, and Lance Stephenson when he’s not busy nearly costing them with his antics. But none has been more heroic than Oladipo. He’s been a wonderful surprise.
Oladipo had the physical tools to be who he is today when he came into the league, but there are countless talented players who go through entire NBA careers without ever reaching their potential. He was close to being one of them. Not that he was a bad player, but his career arc was going in a far different direction after last season with the Thunder. There, he was firmly relegated to the role of the third wheel, which was both a problem of the Thunder’s system and a natural story arc for a player traded away by a bad team like Orlando.
Being traded is demoralizing, but it also presents an opportunity to change the predicted path of reality. Being in a new situation in Indiana, where he was trusted to run the team, he worked on his body, tweaked his game in the summertime, and changed his mindset to be more relentless. Oladipo was given a stage to showcase what he wanted to be instead of being relegated to who the world thought he was.
There’s an anxiety that comes with unexpected success like Oladipo’s and the Pacers. There’s a fear that they will regress. An expectancy for the universe to right itself and for things to return to normal.
It looked like that was happening in this series. Oladipo had 32 points in the first game, 22 in the second, 18 in the third, 17 in the fourth, and then 12 in Game 5. Game 5 also ended with a statement
block goaltend by LeBron, followed by a game-winning three pointer. LeBron finished with 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, and after a few close games with Indiana, things seemed to be getting back on track. Cleveland was about to flip the switch — or at least ride the best player in the world to victory, again — and Oladipo was turning back into his old self.
It’s only fitting, then, that Oladipo and the Pacers again made a mockery of predictions in Game 6. Oladipo saved his best performance of the season for last, helping his team stave off elimination with his first ever playoff triple double, all while putting the best player in the league on a poster. As he was threatened with being thrown back into the box of just being a solid player, of potentially failing in the big moment, Oladipo reminded the Cavaliers and the watching audience that he was a star and he did what stars do.
Because of that, the Pacers didn’t just survive an elimination game. They won it in such a ridiculous and overwhelming fashion that Oladipo was able to sit for the whole fourth quarter.
It remains to be seen whether Oladipo and the Pacers have enough in them to eliminate the Cavaliers and really cause a grand shock across the league, but what they have done so far has been more than enough to merit respect. They’ve been a pleasant reminder that the best thing about sports is that it’s full of surprises.