Last summer, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert declared, unsolicited, that Indiana “could’ve done better than it did” in the trade that sent Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for a package that included Victor Oladipo.
The remark was likely motivated by the fact that the Cavs believed they had a George-for-Kevin Love swap in place before the Pacers pulled off their surprise trade with the Thunder.
Oladipo was the best player on the court Sunday, when Indiana beat Cleveland 98-80 to go up 1-0 in their first-round series. He scored a game-high 32 points on 11-for-19 shooting (6-for-9 from 3) and added six rebounds, four assists and four steals in the wire-to-wire victory.
Gilbert’s remark got back to Oladipo, who said Sunday that he was “aware of it.”
“You could say it added fuel to the fire, I guess you could say,” Oladipo said after Game 1. “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.”
Oladipo closed the game with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter, outplaying LeBron James, who had just four points on 1-for-3 shooting in the final frame.
Sunday marked just the second nationally televised game for the Pacers all season, with the other coming when George made his return to Indiana with the Thunder. Oladipo certainly made the Pacers worth watching in Game 1.
“We’ve been playing like this all year,” he said. “Been playing hard on both ends all year. It just hasn’t been magnified. So it’s the playoffs now, we’ve been doing this all year. Now everybody sees, so it’s like, it’s kind of shocking to everybody, I guess you could say. But we’ve been playing hard. We’ve been playing our butts off on both ends of the floor all year.
“We’re fully aware of LeBron. We’re fully aware of his team, and we realize it’s not going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean we’re just going to come in here and just fold. We planning on winning. That’s why we came to this series. That’s why we came to play this game is to win, not just to come here and just be OK. That’s what we’re focused on: taking it one game at a time, trying to win every game.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, who said before the series that he planned to focus his defensive schemes on taking away the Pacers’ biggest strength, said Cleveland was effective in executing its plan against Oladipo, despite his 32-point night.
“We did, as far as in the pick-and-roll game,” Lue said. “I thought he hurt us catch-and-shoot, off the ball, relaxing, not being aware. I have to go back and look at it. When he did hurt us a couple times, we switched. He made a couple of 3s, which is going to happen. You’re going to give up something. As far as the blitz, I thought we did a good job of getting into him. We got a couple of steals early, which we didn’t convert on, but for the most part, defensively, we were pretty good.”
The Pacers, led by Oladipo, of course, were better.
“I thought he played with a lot of confidence. I thought he made good decisions out there on the floor,” Indiana coach Nate McMillan said of his star guard. “We talked about some of the things that Cleveland would do. 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.”
McMillan, it should be noted, never presented Gilbert’s comments to the Pacers to try to hype them up for the series, but he acknowledged the impact they might have had as they found their way back to his team on their own.
“The game itself, playing the game the right way, is what we use as motivation,” McMillan said. “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. But I haven’t used that type of information as bulletin board material. For us, it’s about going out and giving all we have playing the game the right way, playing the game together. That has been the motivation from this group.”