Victor Oladipo was incensed in his post-mortem yesterday, and with reason. He had the ball in his hands to cap the Pacers’ final possession of the match, and he knew he did the most of it; from top of the key, he faked right, caught LeBron James, who had been defending him following a pick, flat-footed, and attempted a layin at full speed. And even as the four-time Most Valuable Player remarkably recovered and made up for lost ground to block his shot, he believed it had already hit the backboard, an automatic goaltend for two points. There was no call, though, and the outcome so unnerved him that he couldn’t even talk about it in full with the press. “It’s hard to even speak on it,” he said. “It sucks. It just sucks.”
In hindsight, Oladipo had cause to complain. Although replays in real time prove inconclusive, slowing them down does show that the ball first touched glass before James’ right hand smothered it. To be sure, they likewise indicate that the shot didn’t have any prayer of finding the bottom of the net even if it hadn’t been blocked, with the angle to the rim no doubt altered by the threat the four-time Most Valuable Player posed — but that’s another matter altogether. In any case, the absence of a whistle negated any possibility of the sequence being reviewed by officials in tandem with the National Basketball Association Replay Center.
It goes without saying that Oladipo wound up feeling even worse because the next play led to a buzzer-beating three-pointer by — who else? — James, giving the Cavaliers the win and a three-two lead in their first-round series against the Pacers. From his vantage point, the defeat, dealt by a decisive blow resulting from a mistake, added injury to insult. On a personal note, he certainly needed the role of hero; he sported a measly one-of-14 clip from the field prior to his fateful drive, and because it now counts as yet another miss, he will head to Game Six with a 12-of-50 output over the last three outings.
The good news is that the Pacers have ample reason to stay optimistic. For one thing, the last four set-tos have been largely defense-oriented, proceeding at a pace more conducive to the makeup of their roster. It’s why they’ve had chances to prevail in the crunch even after invariably falling behind by double digits. And it’s why they remain without fear in the face of James’ otherworldly performances; under constantly applied pressure, the other Cavaliers with the exception of three-point specialist Kyle Korver have all but wilted.
Still and all, the Pacers may yet find themselves eliminated from the playoffs for the fifth time in seven matchups with the Cavaliers, who, if nothing else, have James. Meanwhile, they have Oladipo, seemingly overwhelmed after Game One and yet still critical to the campaign of the blue and gold. They require him to provide the stuff that made him an All-Star. Else, they’ll scrap and claw, and perhaps come close, only to ultimately fail.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.