It's become something of an old chestnut this time of year: Teams that are in the thick of the playoff race and likely to stand pat at the trade deadline, but who nonetheless want to sell the promise of upward mobility to their fans, suggest that the league's biggest deadline acquisition is in fact a player who was already on their roster, set to return from injury.
If Victor Oladipo can get back to being the player he was before he ruptured his quad just over a year ago, that could actually prove true for the Indiana Pacers. They've been so solid in his absence, and have crafted a roster that fits so well around him, that it's easy to imagine his return propelling them to the conference finals in an East with no clear second-best team.
Entering Wednesday night's game against the Chicago Bulls, their first of the season with Oladipo in the lineup, the Pacers were only three games back of the No. 2 seed. And though his overall performance was a bit of a mixed bag, Oladipo helped them narrow the gap further with a 115-106 overtime win.
A minutes restriction kept him from playing in the extra frame, but for the game to extend past regulation in the first place, Oladipo had to demonstrate - despite the rust - that he still has the moxie and shotmaking ability that made him such an effective closer the past two seasons.
Down three with 15 seconds left, Oladipo sprinted off a screen, took an inbound pass on the left wing, and sized up Chandler Hutchison 28 feet from the basket. He'd missed all six of his 3-point attempts to that point. He'd hit one field goal all game. So of course he let it fly without even taking a dribble and tied the game.
"He wasn't passing that ball," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said after the game. "That's a shot he’s been practicing all summer long. That's the shot he's been working on in his rehab."
Oladipo may not step back into his closer role right away, but the Pacers - who've done an admirable job playing crunch time by committee - could certainly use that kind of initiative and attitude in their late-game offense.
Here are a couple other takeaways from his return, on both sides of the ledger:
Oladipo came off the bench and played 21 minutes in total. All but five of them came with Malcolm Brogdon on the floor. In those shared minutes, there were glimmers of what could eventually make this a deadly backcourt pairing. The Pacers didn't run a lot of two-guard action, but they worked well in concert while revolving around their connective hub, Domantas Sabonis.
One skill that already looked sharp for Oladipo was his passing, specifically his pocket passes out of the pick-and-roll, which repeatedly carved up the Bulls' aggressive hedges. His timing with Sabonis on those passes didn't seem to have missed a beat, and he looked to have developed an early screen-and-slip chemistry with rookie big man Goga Bitadze.
Though Brogdon took on the bulk of the ball-handling duties when the two shared the floor, Oladipo still got to run his share of pick-and-rolls, and having Brogdon spaced out to the corner made those actions difficult to stop. Oladipo was also mostly effective at moving without the ball, getting most of his 3-point looks from down screens and dribble handoffs and turning a couple of those dribble handoffs into screen rolls with Sabonis.
Oladipo finished with four assists, and he would've had at least a couple more if Bitadze didn't blow a couple bunnies around the basket. There were also a handful of plays like the one below, in which Oladipo wasn't credited in the box score but helped create a great look by punching the ball through a trap with a slick pass that set up a four-on-three:
Ordinarily, there may be potential for an uncomfortable tug-of-war for late-game touches between Oladipo and Brogdon, who've each served as the team's lead playmaker for long stretches. For now, as he works his way back into form, Oladipo seems willing to defer. And the fact that both can play so well off the ball bodes well for their ability to strike the right balance.
Despite the game-tying shot and the other positive indicators, it could be a while before Oladipo is ready to carry the kind of load the Pacers need at both ends in order to meaningfully raise their ceiling.
His jumper, aside from the big one, was wayward all night, and it was a tad worrisome that he had to rely on it so heavily. Seven of his eight field-goal attempts were 3-pointers, and while he did take four trips to the free-throw line, for the most part he struggled to get rolling downhill and into the teeth of the defense. When he was on the floor with Brogdon, he took nothing but threes.
His burst not being all the way back was foreseeable (and to be fair, he did make a couple of explosive moves to the hoop), but the issue was compounded by his handle being a bit sloppy. You can probably chalk that up to him playing his first game in a year. It's a rhythm thing, which should improve as he graduates from playing only in five-minute bursts.
Perimeter defense is a huge part of Oladipo's value, and while he didn't make many egregious mistakes and was mostly strong on the ball, he got hung up on a few too many screens, failing to stay attached when chasing ball-handlers over the top. The Pacers typically don't switch a lot, but with their rearview pursuits lagging down the stretch, they went to a more switch-happy approach and held the Bulls scoreless over the final 4:08 of regulation.
That may be something to consider doing more often while Oladipo gets reacquainted.
Most of these kinks should get ironed out over time; it's more a question of how much time. Given the severity of the injury he's recovering from, there's certainly a chance Oladipo won't be the player the Pacers need him to be until next season. He's preached patience himself, knowing how much work it took to get back on the floor and how much more work there is to do yet. But he took a massive first step Wednesday, and after spending 82 games on the shelf, he was in a grateful mood.
"It's been a tough year, man," an emotional Oladipo said postgame. "But tough times don't last, tough people do."
Joe Wolfond writes about basketball and tennis for theScore.