He was doing push-ups. He had just hit a game-winning 3-pointer to lead an improbable comeback that saved the Pacers from an embarrassing loss, and he was doing push-ups.
“I missed a free throw,” Victor Oladipo said.
“A friend of mine, we have a little thing going. If I miss a free throw, I have to do push-ups.”
OK, so Oladipo did 10 pushups before his courtside conversation with Fox Sports Indiana’s Jeremiah Johnson following the Pacers’ 98-96 victory over Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday. Most likely, the fans will forgive him for that transgression since he happened to hit a transition 3-pointer with 30.1 seconds left that gave the Pacers their first lead of the game and turned out to be the game-winning basket.
True, the errant free throw could have been costly. Oladipo missed the first of two attempts with 12.8 seconds left. His successful execution of the second one gave the Pacers a two-point lead, which held up after Lauri Markkanen’s well-defended 3-pointer missed badly at the buzzer.
That gave the Pacers with one of their most dramatic victories of their dramatic season, a meaningful one in a game they trailed by as many as 17 points in the second quarter, by 16 with 9:41 remaining and still by nine points at 4:52.
A loss would have been…well, not devastating, but significant. The Pacers are on a six-game home stand, and need to win the majority of them to identify themselves as a playoff team. A loss to the Bulls, who entered — and exited — the game with the NBA’s worst record (now 3-20) would have been a step backward, and hardly the appropriate lead-in to Friday’s game against the league’s hottest team, Cleveland, which had to come from behind to defeat Sacramento and win its 13th straight game.
A win, though, gives the Pacers a 14-11 record, just one-half game behind Detroit for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and several games ahead of where most people thought they would be. It also made people forget their sluggish beginning, when they rushed shots, made sloppy passes and failed to dig down defensively to allow the Bulls to run off to a 10-point first-quarter lead and gain confidence that held up until the final five minutes or so.
“I thought we came out flat,” coach Nate McMillan said. “I don’t know why, or if we thought it was going to be easy, but what I learned from the team tonight, they stuck together. I felt they believed the entire time they were going to get it right and win this game. It took us all 48 minutes to get control of this game.”
Absolutely, all 48. The game turned on the defensive end in the fourth quarter, where the Pacers forced the Bulls into 28 percent shooting and six turnovers. Losing teams usually find ways to lose, and the Bulls did, but the Pacers’s defense had a lot to do with it. Over the game’s final seven minutes, when Chicago was trying to protect a 13-point lead, it hit just 1-of-10 shots and committed four turnovers against a frenetic defense. Cory Joseph picked off three steals for the Pacers during that run.
The game-breaking turnover came when Bojan Bogdanovic deflected Denzel Valentine’s dribble into Oladipo’s hands with 34.4 seconds. Oladipo raced downcourt, reaching the 3-point line in five dribbles and 3.3 seconds. He had Bogdanovic on the left wing and Thaddeus Young on the right, but he pulled up and fired. It made sense from a strategic viewpoint, as it provided a two-for-one opportunity that would have allowed the Pacers another possession if he had missed and the Bulls rebounded. It also made sense because he’s a 44 percent 3-point shooter and one of the league’s best in transition. His shot was nearly perfect, barely grazing the back rim on its way through the basket.
Oladipo said he took note of the landscape as he was dribbling downcourt, with teammates on each wing, but didn’t hesitate to shoot.
“Nobody stopped me,” he said. “I could have kept going and drove into the defense or pulled up for the three. I’ve been shooting the ball with confidence, so I did.”
Most of Oladipo’s teammates expected him to do just that.
“With Vic, you know it’s going up,” Young said.
“I’m expecting Vic to be Vic, man,” Myles Turner said.
Oladipo’s confidence has statistical support. He had hit 58 percent of his field goal attempts, including 42 percent of his 3-pointers, in the five games previous to Wednesday. But it works both ways. His stats are a reflection of his confidence, which never seems to waver.
His free throw percentage, though, could stand a little improvement. He’s at .788, which isn’t bad at all, but short of the .830 he shots two years ago in Orlando. If he’s truly doing 10 pushups for every miss, he’s done 250 this season, which at least builds upper body strength.
“I’ve been doing a lot of push-ups lately,” he said. “I’ve got to bend my knees a little more.”
Oladipo ran to the corner of the court opposite the Pacers’ bench after the final buzzer to slap hands with a few fans. He pointed his index fingers downward on the way, as he had done once during a break earlier in the quarter, as if saying “This is my city. Right here.”
He said he didn’t actually utter any words, however.
“I wasn’t saying anything,” he said in the locker room.
But he did say this to Johnson before leaving the court: “I’m home, baby. I’m home. I’m here to stay.”
No amount of missed free throws will wear out his welcome.
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