Oladipo is Dragging Indiana Straight to the Playoffs
As the season comes to a close, Indiana is fighting tooth-and-nail in a race no one expected them to be in. The Pacers are currently sitting at 46-32, and only 2 games back of the 3rd seed tie between Philly and Cleveland, when they were expected to have a tough time making the playoffs. But, the Pacers haven't been playing out of their minds, or just getting lucky all the time. They're just good.
The success is due to Indiana's not so secret weapon: Victor Oladipo. Coach Nate McMillan has handed him the keys to the offense, and he has taken the increase in workload seamlessly. His points per game have gone up from 15.9 to 23.4, a difference of 7.5 points despite only shooting 4.2 more attempts.
His marked improvement was completely unprecendented, and has earned him his first All-Star nod, and is running away with the Most Improved Player award. Previously considered a second banana at best, Oladipo has instead taken a springboard to stardom in one season.
Much of his scoring in halfcourt sets rests on his great decision making. He knows when to ease up and reset and when to attack, and has the elite athleticism to take full advantage of it as well. When he does attack, he does so from everywhere on the court, from the rim all the way to the 3 point line, Oladipo can score from anywhere.
In ball screen situations, he is usually a few feet behind the screen so that when he gets an opening, he can use the space for an extra step or two. The extra space allows him to get an extra bit of speed after changing from a jog to a sprint, and his full speed is fast enough that defenders can rarely leverage the head start to their advantage.
Oladipo recognizes that the first screen resulted in little separation, and so he keeps his pace knowing that he'll have another shot to attack. When he sees that the defender is on a course right into the screener, he anticipates the contact and attacks before the defender even touches the screen, resulting in a mismatch against a plodding big, and the easy blow-by finish.
His absolutely lethal drives open up the rest of the floor, since defenses do not want to let him take a shot inside, as he is scarily effective at finishing, shooting 69% from inside 3 feet.
Again the Pacers run a simple high ball screen with Oladipo initiating, and once he loses his defender he accelerates, which forces the switch on the big, who now has to defend the much quicker Oladipo in space. Since the defender is no match for Oladipo's quickness, he is forced to give him the open shot, which he knocks down.
He's also a terror on defense, leading the league in steals with 2.2 per game, and has not gone without a steal in 60 straight games. Of course, steals aren't the only qualifier for good defense, but making any given assignment wary of a sudden strip means that Oladipo is already in their head before the game even starts.
How Oladipo gets these steals is a combination of both stripping the ball straight out of the ballhandler's hands and sheer anticipation. The strip is a simple matter of quick hands getting to the ball, as such any defender that gambles enough will eventually get a steal. However, what makes him the league leader in steals is a combination of both quick hands and freakish anticipation. He patrols the court when the ball is two passes away from his assignment and will watch the passer and intercept any pass that comes in his direction.
His defense has become contagious, bringing the entire team up another level. The team as a whole is allowing the 7th least points per game, and have used their defense to slow down the game by not giving up early shots. Not only that, but Oladipo's game of forcing turnover after turnover carries over to the rest of the team as well, as they force 15.4 turnovers per game, good for 3rd in the league.
As a whole, the Pacers are a dangerous team when powered by Oladipo, and the reason for this is not only how he has improved, but how the situation around him is tailored to perfectly fit his game. The roster is consisted of shooters that are more than capable of taking a drive and kick from Oladipo and drilling the three. Because they're all such prolific shooters, none of them need the ball to get into a rhythm, which means that Oladipo is free to be the primary ballhandler, which is the exact situation he shines in.
Indiana may not be the sexiest team out there, and definitely don't get the attention that many other teams in bigger markets may get. However, don't let that sway you; they are just as dangerous as any team out there, and eventually the attention will have to shift to them.