KRAVITZ: Once again, bloodless Oladipo comes through for the Pacers in the clutch

(Photo: Indiana Pacers/Twitter)
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) – Like most self-respecting Hoosiers, Brad Stevens grew up admiring Reggie Miller. Of course he did…who didn't? And naturally, the Zionsville native wore Reggie's iconic No. 31. He would come to Market Square Arena a couple of times a year, following his dad, who was enlisted to work with the team as a member of Ortho Indy. There, he would feel the passion and hear the deafening noise that made MSA such a difficult place to play, rooting on the Pacers, rooting on Reggie.

"I was there the night Rick Smits hit the shot to beat Orlando,'' Stevens said, recalling Smits' buzzer-beating game winner that tied the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals series with Orlando at two games apiece. "There was that famous call, 'This crowd is delirious!!' And it was.''

Saturday night at Bankers Life, the successor building to MSA, the place went bananas once again, and it was Miller's successor as a franchise player, Victor Oladipo, who sent the multitudes into hysterics. Just as kids like Stevens used to wear No. 31, now they wear No. 4, and for a very good reason. With the Pacers trailing, 101-97, after a Kyrie Irving three-ball with 38.1 seconds remaining, Oladipo, who had struggled with his shot all game, seized control.

He got fouled driving hard to the hoop, then knocked down two free throws (which hasn't been a given this season as the Pacers have been lousy from the free throw line). Now it was 101-99 Pacers with 29.2 seconds left. They desperately needed a stop, not to mention a little bit of luck. And they got it.

On the other end of the floor, Irving missed a bunny from close range. If it was a putt, it would be a gimme.

"Great play call by Coach Stevens and I just smoked the layup,'' Irving said. "It was just my body position. That was fully my responsibility to get open and finish that shot. I rushed it. I got my left hand on the backboard and instead of finishing the play, I just put too much whatever on it and I just shorted it. I should have put us up four with that layup.''

The Pacers grabbed the rebound and then, as has been the case so many times since Oladipo came here from Oklahoma City, the Pacers star turned into a bloodless closer, like a dead-eyed baseball closer with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball and a knee-buckling curve. With Irving and Horford failing to pressure him as he brought the ball up the right side of the floor, Oladipo essentially said, "What the heck?'' and casually let fly with a three-point shot.

The ball fell through the hoop, the net not making a ripple.

With 4.7 seconds left, the Pacers led 102-101.

"I paused a little bit just to see if Nate (McMillan) wanted to call a timeout, and he didn't,'' Oladipo said. "I just got to my spot and then shot the ball with confidence…I was reading (the defense). I think they thought I was going to go to the basket, honestly. Al Horford gave me a little cushion as well. I just rose up and shot it.''

Oladipo was not thinking three-ball or a two-point field goal; he was thinking about taking whatever the Celtics might be offering defensively. A three, a two, whatever. He wanted a good look.

"He wants that shot,'' McMillan said. "He didn't hesitate.''

Oladipo wasn't done. He stole Gordon Hayward's inbounds pass on the Boston possession and that was that, the end of the kind of game that is usually played in May rather than early November. It was physical. It had defense. It was old school in a new school age. It was the kind of game, the kind of matchup, that made you feel comfortable in thinking these two teams will once again meet late in the playoffs this spring.

It's too early for statement games, barometer games, whatever you choose to call them. The season is just 10 games old, and a lot can happen, both good and bad, between now and the springtime. But if you're a Pacers fan, you have to be thrilled with what you've been seeing — specifically, a team that has every chance to be better than last year's group, who won 48 games.

To wit: Indiana is 7-3, the third-best record in the Eastern Conference despite the fact they've played six of their first 10 games on the road. And there's ample room for growth. Tyreke Evans, who played so well Saturday night, continues to figure out how and where he fits with this group. Doug McDermott…same thing. Thaddeus Young is still working his way back into shape after missing most of the preseason with a foot injury. They're still not even an average rebounding team, and they're been strangely ineffective on the free-throw line.

And yet…7-3, and a victory over a really good Boston team on the second night of a back-to-back.

"I told our guys we want to go out there and play like we believe we can win this game,'' Nate McMijllan said. "The Celtics are a very good team, a lot of talent over there. We're not going to make excuses for the schedule. This was a tough back-to-back and all I asked our guys to do was play like you believe you can win this game. And they did.''

When the season began, most of the Eastern Conference talk centered on the Celtics, Sixers and Raptors, with the Pacers earning minimal mention as the best of the rest. The Pacers are a flyover team in flyover country, lack the media market size or the raw star power to draw the attention of the NBA world. They aren't as completely under the radar as they were last year; nobody saw that team winning 48 games and pushing LeBron to a seventh game. After last season, everybody knows the Pacers have something going here. But when you hear about the East, you hear about Boston, Toronto and Philly, the Pacers being something of an afterthought.

I'm telling you now, that would be a significant mistake.

I'm telling you now, the Pacers will compete for a top three spot in the East all season long and may ultimately find a way to seize on of those top three spots.

"I think they're really good,'' Stevens was saying before the game. "Really well coached, well organized and physical. They don't let you do anything unchallenged. And so when you can't match that physicality, when you can't catch the ball where you want, you probably won't be successful. They're not only good at that, but it goes to a new level in the last five, six minutes of the game.''

As Boston found out Saturday night.

It wasn't Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals, as it was when Stevens attended the Smits game in 1995, but it felt like playoff basketball in the springtime. We haven't seen the last of this matchup. Not even close.

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