Victor Oladipo said the same thing after every win and every loss: “We’ve been doing it all year.”
Throughout the entirety of the Indiana Pacers’ series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he was being asked about a recurring theme with his team—resiliency.
If you could pick one word to describe the group that almost everybody picked to finish in the gutter of the Eastern Conference standings before the season started, that would be the one. The term “adversity” can be overstated and overused at times in the NBA, but in this case, it was completely warranted.
The Pacers had traded their franchise superstar for two young players who hadn’t found their way in Oklahoma City. Kevin Pritchard was vilified for months because of the organization-altering move, one that the majority of media outlets killed for what was then thought to be a poor return for such an All-Star caliber talent.
Until the year got underway and Indiana shut those people’s collective mouths up with purpose.
Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, the duo that came over from the Thunder, were absolutely brilliant over the course of the season. The former is a shoe-in to win the Most Improved Player award and the latter is well on his way to becoming a true versatile-threat big man in this league.
Both men shined in their own ways for head coach Nate McMillan, but it truly was a memorable season for each player on the roster. That proved to be the case in a first-round series against LeBron James and the defending conference champions.
Last year’s playoffs ended with a four-game sweep. This time around with a younger and more cohesive roster, Indiana gave them all they could handle, falling just short in seven.
“Kudos and a big shoutout to the Indiana Pacers first of all,” James said in his postgame presser. “They were tough. Tough team. They have obviously the head of the snake in Vic[tor Oladipo]—unbelievable jump from last year to this year. We all saw it and he proved why he’s a franchise-caliber player.
“Everybody on down, they’ve just got a well-rounded team. They definitely pushed us…pushed us to the brink, basically.”
Getting props from the best player in the world isn’t enough for Oladipo, though. He’s aching to get going and get to work for next season already. As for Pacers as a whole, well, the basketball world should know who they are at this point.
“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” an impassioned Oladipo said after Game 7 in Cleveland. “That’s just how I feel. Nobody thought we were gonna be here. No one. Not one person…but us in the locker room.
“I feel like we’ve earned our respect from everyone. Now, if you don’t respect us, then that’s fine. That’s your opinion. But I believe we’ve earned it, so I think that’s the moment we have created.”
McMillan chose to use his platform to discuss how far his new superstar has come.
“I love Victor,” he said. “I tell all our guys this has been a joy to coach this team, to coach this group of men this season. With Victor, being a young talent coming in. All I knew about him was he had potential. Really since day one coming in and working, the relationship has been great.
“He’s allowed us to coach him. He wants to learn. He wants to get better. Every single day he comes in trying to improve. He’s a kid that—he’s there early, he stays late. He’s hungry. He wants to be good. He wants to be a team player. He wants to be a franchise player. He’s shown that our organization can certainly build with him for the future. He’s a team player, plays the game the right way. We saw some growth from that kid this season, and he’s gonna be a very talented kid for us in the future.”
Of course, he couldn’t leave out Oladipo’s teammates in a long, meaningful message to the players he’s had the pleasure of taking under his wing.
“I talked to our guys after,” McMillan said. “I think life is about creating moments. This was gonna be a moment either way. If we lost it, it’s a moment we’ll think about. We had an opportunity to create a special moment [Sunday]—going seven games with Cleveland, possibly winning this and moving on to the second round.
“As I said to them, they’ve created a moment this entire season. A lot of people didn’t really give us a chance. They came in, they worked hard, they worked together. They played hard, they played together. We created a culture with our organization that we will continue to build, and it’s all because of the men that we had in that locker room.
“I mean, it was a special group. I look forward to coming to practice every single day seeing these guys and working with them. That’s the kind of group we want. We want guys who are gonna come in and play for the name on the front of that jersey. It’s not about the name on the back. It’s about (points to chest) Indiana Pacers. Respect the game. Respect each other. Play the game the right way. They did that, and we’ll, this summer, build on that.”
So what is that next step for Indiana? Oladipo wants to take his game to another level, but collectively what’s the goal over the offseason?
“Improvement,” Oladipo said. “I think we all can better our games. I think we all just need to self-evaluate ourselves and see what we need to improve at and get better at. I think we need to go and attack this summer and build off this loss. I don’t like this feeling. I don’t think they like it either. In order to make sure we don’t have this feeling again, we’ve gotta put in the work, so that’s what we need to do.
Of course, when you have a tight-knit bond on and off the floor with everybody buying in, the process of progress is a little bit easier.
“I mean it’s huge,” Oladipo said. “At the end of the day, nobody thought we were gonna be here. If I told you we were gonna be here in October, y’all would’ve looked at me like I was crazy. But we believe in each other and we trust each other and that’s the only reason we’re sitting up here talking right now.
“We’ve gotta improve on that so I don’t have this discussion with y’all again.”
That will no longer be necessary, Victor.
The Pacers have proved to the world that they are here, and here to stay.
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