Victor Oladipo returns after more than 1-year absence to spark Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana Pacers All-Star guard Victor Oladipo arrived at Bankers Life Fieldhouse wearing a No. 8 Western Conference All-Star jersey in honor of Kobe Bryant. And when the game was on the line, Oladipo's "Mamba Mentality" took over to give the Pacers their biggest basket of the game.

After nearly 375 days away from NBA game action, Oladipo made a 3-pointer from the left wing with 10.3 seconds remaining to force overtime in his team's 115-106, come-from-behind victory over the Chicago Bulls.

"I'm staying in the moment. I learned that from Kobe," Oladipo said. "Stay in the moment. At the end of the day, it went in."

Oladipo finished the game with nine points on 2-of-8 shooting to go with four assists and two rebounds in 21 minutes. His lone 3-pointer came after he missed his first six attempts, marking the second-most attempts he has taken before a make in a game in his career.

Oladipo had not played in an NBA contest since he sustained a gruesome ruptured quad tendon in his right knee on Jan. 23, 2019, against the Toronto Raptors.

"I feel like I've been in a WWE fight with The Undertaker, and he just threw me in the cage and he came from the top rope," Oladipo said. "At the end of the day, can't nothing steal my joy. My body feels phenomenal right now. I did pretty good with the 21 minutes. I just have to keep getting better. Get my body used to that level of basketball again, eventually my body will come, but my mind will always be there."

Oladipo has made a 3-pointer to tie or give the Pacers the lead in the final 20 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime three times since the start of the 2018 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That is tied with the tallies of Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. for the most in the NBA, despite Oladipo's playing in only 37 of a possible 130 games in that span.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan knew Oladipo wasn't going to pass the ball once he caught it on the wing and was isolated on Chicago's Chandler Hutchison. That's because he has watched the guard practice that shot over and over again throughout his rehabilitation.

"When I shot it, I didn't think about the six I missed," Oladipo said. "I just thought about making that one. The rest of the game didn't matter. We're in here talking about that shot. We're not talking about the rest of the game."

It's only fitting that Oladipo made a clutch shot the way that Bryant did throughout his 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pacers, like other teams in the NBA, honored Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died with seven others in a helicopter crash on Sunday in Southern California, with a 24-second moment of silence prior to the game.

The Bulls opened the game with an eight-second backcourt violation, and the Pacers followed with a 24-second shot clock violation for Bryant.

With fans holding up the "Ready 4 Action" signs that had been placed on their seats and chanting his name, Oladipo made his season debut with 4:12 left in the first quarter. He had four points, two assists and one rebound in a four-minute stretch before he returned to the bench as planned for the start of the second quarter.

Oladipo, after talking with the team's staff and medical staff, targeted Wednesday as his return date based on his rehabilitation, which included some practice time with the franchise's G League team. He spoke with a lot of emotion following the game. He thanked many of his younger teammates for arriving early in the morning for 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 games and helping him get through the process of returning to game action.

"I'm just thankful, an emotional night. I got emotional out there," Oladipo said. "It's been a roller coaster. At the end of the day, I attack that roller coaster.

"I feel like I ran a 36-mile marathon, however long marathons are. I'm thankful for the people you don't see [in the organization]."

Oladipo's debut falls in a stretch in which the Pacers will play seven of eight games at home. McMillan said the plan is for Oladipo to average around 24 minutes per game for the immediate future, even if he continues to play well. The medical staff informed McMillan at the end of regulation that Oladipo was done for the night.

"The thing is to be slow with him," McMillan said. "We're not really concerned about now; we're concerned about the future for Victor -- that he plays a long time in a Pacers uniform. We're not going to get crazy here early. We'll be patient. [Wednesday], the game was on the line, we were able to get him in there in regulation; but after that, I was told by our staff that was it by our staff."

The Pacers don't expect Oladipo to immediately be the same player who was averaging nearly 19 points per game prior to his injury. The team knows it will take time for him to regain his form. That's why Oladipo will continue to come off the bench through the All-Star break, and he won't play in back-to-back games. Barring any setbacks, he will play in seven of the team's eight games prior to the break.

The Pacers have the task of working their best player back into the lineup while trying to move into one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers went into Wednesday's game as the sixth seed in the East.

"We're not putting pressure on him to go out there and do anything but get a feel, start to trust your body," McMillan said. "Work on things. Catch up to what we're doing out on the floor. There are no real expectations."