INDIANAPOLIS - When that first 3-pointer found its target, everything that had transpired in this first-round series between the Pacers and Cavaliers seemed not to matter any longer. It seemed not to matter that it was a series, even. Victor Oladipo again looked like Victor Oladipo, the player who had arrived here last summer and elevated himself from solid starter to NBA All-Star as quickly as he surges to throw down a dunk.
It wasn't as simple as a single jump shot finding the bottom of the net.
"I made my first shot in a couple of those games I didn't play well," Oladipo told Sporting News. "One shot doesn't really dictate the other ones. One play doesn't really dictate the other ones."
And yet, with Indiana facing elimination, that one triple midway through the first quarter was followed in less than a minute by a dunk and then two more 3-pointers. He wound up with 15 points in the first quarter, more than any Cavalier save LeBron James scored in the entire game. So of course the Pacers won in a blowout, 121-87, to force a decisive Game 7 on Sunday in Cleveland.
Oladipo stuck around long enough to record a triple-double of 28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. It felt like he might have been in there too long chasing the final two assists, but in reality, it was only three extra minutes of playing time.
"We've been talking after every game about just different things he's seeing, and the defense they're playing against him, just continuing to be aggressive," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. "He was, at times, pressing, playing a little too fast. I thought tonight he really came out and played the same game; he was knocking down shots, remained aggressive.
"When he's playing that way offensively, it really opens up a lot for the rest of our guys."
It seems almost cruel to recount his numbers from the previous four games against the Cavs: 21-of-68 from the field, 7-of-31 from 3-point range, 16 turnovers, three defeats. He had opened this series with a 32-point splash that suggested anything might be possible, even an early Pacers advancement, and then discovered that "anything" happened to include failure.
"I feel like Victor can do this every single night," guard Darren Collison told Sporting News. "If you look at the games where he struggled, he was still making plays for us, to give us an opportunity to win games.
"This is really his first season as being the No. 1 option, and I think he's handled it pretty well. There's no change in his personality. He never loses confidence. Nobody, really, in this locker room lost confidence."
The obvious truth is the Pacers are a better team than LeBron James. Not by a lot, but still it has been apparent throughout the first six games that Indiana at its best is a difficult challenge for a single man to overcome.
Even if that man is not normal, as the Pacers' Lance Stephenson would put it.
James never before faced elimination in a first-round series. But the Pacers have outscored the Cavs by 44 points, an average of seven per game. Cleveland has had 11 total double-figure scoring games from players not named LeBron through six games; that's not even two per game. The Pacers had seven in this one alone.
To be at its best, though, Indiana needs to play with a reasonable degree of confidence, and that was impossible to muster with Oladipo knocked so far off his game for so much of this series. Some of that was a product of J.R. Smith's persistent defense, but let's not kid ourselves. Oladipo was getting open shots. Not all his 47 misses in Games 2-5 came on high-quality looks, but he was open plenty. He just wasn't Oladipo.
"I've believed in Victor all season long," McMillan told SN. "He's a kid that doesn't really get down on himself, whether he has a bad half or a bad game."
Although he was only 2-of-14 from the field as the Pacers gained possession with less than a half-minute left of a tie game Wednesday in Cleveland, Oladipo was trusted to dribble out most of the shot-clock and then attempt to create a basket. He drove the left side of the lane, tried to bank in a layup and saw it swatted down by James. He also saw it hit the backboard before James arrived, which meant that block ought to have been a goaltend, leaving the Pacers ahead by two with three seconds left.
Oladipo had to contend with frustration on so many levels: ineffectiveness, the disappointing result, being powerless to correct the official's mistake.
"He responded with aggressive play tonight," McMillan said. "We believe in him. He's a kid that absorbs what you tell him, he tries to play the game the right way. When teams are double-teaming him, we're telling him to get the ball out; he did that. When he has single coverage, we're telling him, 'Take your shot. Attack.' He did that. He just continues to come out and show growth and improvement."
Without Oladipo at his best, the Pacers lost three games by a combined 10 points and managed to squeeze out a two-point win. In his two games of 28 points or better, they destroyed the Cavs. During Sunday's decisive game, he can expect to attract more attention than Taylor Swift at a shopping mall.
Can he shake it off?