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Five observations from Victor Oladipo’s first games back with the Pacers

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The Pacers are 1-5 since Victor Oladipo returned to action. Having now played the equivalent of a second preseason, here’s what we’ve learned:

Indiana Pacers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Victor Oladipo doesn’t look like himself yet. In addition to spending more time out on the perimeter, where he’s taken over half of his shots as threes; he’s truncating his drives, loading up on as many shots from short mid-range areas (3-16 feet) as at the rim. For now at least, there’s a higher degree of difficulty in almost everything he does. Where he once would’ve hit the brakes at a moment’s notice and propelled himself straight up and down for a pull-up jump shot, he’s snaking his way around traffic and landing softly on one leg. Rather than getting all the way to the basket and attempting an on-point layup, he’s settling for floaters and off-balance finishes while only sparsely getting to the line.

With his eyes up and his shoulders hunched, Indiana’s two-time All-Star is still channeling his energy with clear-cut intentions, but he has a tendency to roll right on past his once natural stopping point at the free throw line before proceeding to jump off his left leg without drawing contact.

None of this seems particularly out of character for someone returning from a serious injury following an 82-game absence, but it’s impossible to talk about what’s been going on with the Pacers as losers of five of their last six games without making at least some mention of the fact that he’s shooting 28 percent from the field on over 12 shots per game — even if it’s reasonable to attribute some of his struggles to temporary factors like rust and underdeveloped chemistry.

Therefore, without feeling the need to dwell too much in this space on things like rhythm and timing, here’s five things we’ve learned from Oladipo’s earliest games back with the Pacers.

Oladipo still has an omnipresence on defense

The lift on Oladipo’s jumper may not be as trampoline-like, and he doesn’t quite have the same burst when he pulls back and then rapidly propels himself forward against a switch, but man alive can that guy still plug holes on defense.

Get a load of how much ground he covered on this possession against the Knicks. When confronted by empty corner pick-and-roll, the Pacers usually do one of two things: They either stunt toward the ball at the risk of giving up an open three, or they expect Myles Turner to be able to swallow up the action without help from a tagger.

Enter: Oladipo.

With Turner emphasizing the ball, make note of how far over Oladipo had to come, here, in order to be able to bump the roller from the opposite side of the floor.

Now watch as he still manages to loop up from the baseline to contest the three as he swaps defenders in an X-out pattern with Justin Holiday. (Psst, the sound effect you should be hearing in your head right now is...ZOOOMMMM!)

Not too shabby, right?

He’s also been fun as the low-man, sliding over from the weak-side and sacrificing his body to such a degree that he already leads the team in charges drawn through only five games played. Still, where he arguably makes the most impact as a defender is with his ability to flit and flutter from between help coverages like a hummingbird in search of nectar.

Checkout this possession against the Raptors, for instance. In addition to providing support to Jeremy Lamb at the nail and jumping back to his man, he filled on the kick-out and then retraced his steps to knock the ball free from Serge Ibaka.

Granted, there are spots where he could stand to be more disciplined with the way he goes about roaming the entire floor. For instance, if he’s going to come off of his man to dig the post, he absolutely has to come up with this steal.

Even so, when deployed more conservatively within the team’s schemes, there’s no denying that his speed still has the potential to have a band-aid effect both on and away from the ball.

The Pacers need more flow on offense

Over the five games with Oladipo, more than 11 percent of Indiana’s shot attempts have come late in the shot-clock, one of the highest rates in the league. For point of reference, Philly is the only team currently topping that mark on the season.

Admittedly, with both the starters and the second unit coming out of the gates fast in an attempt to race ahead of Toronto’s mixture of zone and length, there were stretches of Friday’s game that read more like a track meet.

Early on, Oladipo even had a memorable flash where he appeared downright spry bounding across the lane in semi-transition by way of a clever butt screen from Sabonis.

On the whole, however, much of the offensive flow has come across like a team playing a second preseason, with broken up sessions of your-turn, my-turn draining the shot-clock.

Once Oladipo gets his feet wet, there eventually needs to be more continuity between actions. Like, why not have Turner set a step-up screen on the opposite side of the floor from where Sabonis is playing two-man game?

That way, if Oladipo fires the ball behind the pick-and-roll, Brogdon can immediately attack off the dribble without having to contend with a mess of bodies.

Taking a page from the Mad Ants, they could also get a lot of play out of just repurposing the same set they already employ as a quick-hitter to free up shooters. With Sabonis screening away from the ball, Brogdon could allow his momentum to carry him to the basket, as Naz Mitrou-Long should’ve done, here.

Alternatively, this same set-up can be used as a vehicle to immediately flow into throw-back pick-and-roll.

Fort Wayne also has a look where they don’t use the screen at all, and Naz just circles around to the corner with the player he replaces lifting to the wing as Walter Lemon Jr. penetrates away from the play.

All of which is to say that until Oladipo starts to look a little more comfortable creating for himself against a set defense, the Pacers could probably stand to incorporate a few extra modes of early, seamless offense.

It definitely hurts that the defense hasn’t been able to string together multiple stops over the last few games, but the fact of the matter is that the Pacers have been up (tallying 42 points in a quarter!) and down (barely mustering 103 points against a team that has only failed to hit that number five times season!) on both ends of the floor with one begetting the other (i.e. bad shots and turnovers leading to a slew of fast-break points).

Plus, holding the Knicks to 92 points should’ve been enough, right?

T.J. McConnell is finding workarounds away from the ball

Shortly after Oladipo announced his return date, it started to become evident that the coaching staff was purposefully gauging how defenses would respond to T.J. McConnell playing away from the ball. Instead of always just stashing his slow release in the corner — where opponents willfully ignore him as a non-threat — they’ve gradually folded in some plays with him as the screener.

In Denver, for instance, they used him to set the first screen in a double-drag for Brogdon, which ultimately generated an open look for Doug McDermott when the Nuggets loaded to Sabonis on the roll.

Much to delight of the 2017-18 Pacers, who (as you may recall) were for the most part content to just rely on Oladipo to get the ball out against traps, McConnell has also occasionally been dispatched to set off-ball screens for the eventual ball screener (i.e. RAM screens). Ideally, the benefit of this is that it delays the screener’s man from being able to commit to the ball or jump out above the level of the screener.

That said, it doesn’t always all go off without a hitch. Against Chicago, McConnell’s RAM screen served its intended purpose of preventing Cristiano Felicio from being able to blitz the pick-and-roll, but Coby White obviously didn’t think twice about releasing from the dunker’s spot to step up to the ball when Oladipo waited a beat too long to feed Goga Bitadze on the roll.

With McConnell playing off-ball in lineups with Brogdon or Oladipo, there’s (literally) less room for mistakes and more need for forethought than what might be necessary with Aaron Holiday’s shooting in the same role, but they gain being able to keep his uptempo playmaking on the floor. To that point, although shots still sometimes get funneled to him on the perimeter, it helps that he has a strong feel for catching passes on the move when playing adjacent to the ball as well as diving behind his man when stationed in the corner.

On the season, the Pacers have outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in the 89 minutes that McConnell has been on the floor with Brogdon. It’s probably still fair to question how the spacing will hold up in a playoff setting, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have options. Plus, some of those wrinkles would arguably come in handy if applied more universally. After all, it’s never too early to start planning ahead.

The Pacers might want to try “switching” it up

After surrendering an 11-0 run late in the fourth quarter to the Raptors and then giving up 16 points over the final three minutes against the Pelicans, it almost goes without saying that the Pacers are struggling to sustain their defense, especially late in games.

Some of that can be attributed to being careless with the ball, but it also seems notable that the opposite was the case against Chicago. Confronted in shifts by like-sized defenders, the Bulls went scoreless for a stretch of 4:54 minutes between the fourth quarter and overtime. Sure, Chicago contributed to that draught by proceeding to call for guard-to-guard screens when it was evident that Brogdon and Oladipo were neutralizing those actions with switches, but...um...here’s a counterpoint: THE PACERS WERE NEUTRALIZING THOSE ACTIONS WITH SWITCHES!!!

Instead of getting toasted on the perimeter and then burned on subsequent late rotations (as was so often the case on Saturday versus the Pelicans), Brogdon and Oladipo were consistently forcing offensive resets with Warren on-hand to provide help from the weak-side. That’s tougher to execute against size, and a quartet with those two alongside Holiday and Warren will have to perfect doubling with speed, but some of their defensive issues — at least in small-ball lineups — might already have an internal solution once those four are able to get better acquainted.

The Pacers are still going to have to adjust to this adjustment period

To understand exactly how jumbled up the Pacers rotation has been over the last 12 days, look no further than Jeremy Lamb.

Eventually, the variable scorer with a penchant for leaky closeouts is going to slide back to play with the second unit, but unforeseen circumstances have basically prevented that from happening — barring a grand total of 16 minutes. Instead, with Oladipo shifting from being eased back as a reserve to starting and then sitting out the second night of a back-to-back at the same time as T.J. Warren was cleared to return from a three-game absence with a concussion, Lamb has been part of four different starting lineups over the last six games.

Consequently, the 27-year-old wing hasn’t exactly had a chance to infiltrate himself among one of the few groups that’s currently playing with any semblance of visible familiarity: T.J. McConnell/Aaron Holiday, Doug McDermott, Justin Holiday, and Domantas Sabonis.

In the sparse minutes when he has been out on the floor with some combination of that group, his offense has felt mostly separate from their offense and vice versa, with him either attacking in elbow-get situations or existing on the periphery of their swirling movement.

That is, perhaps with the exception of this pointed example when he received a screen from Justin Holiday:

Melding one to the other is going to take time, which to this point isn’t something that they, nor several other five-man units on this team, have exactly had since Oladipo returned.

Granted, the “usual” starters have inexplicably come out flat at the same time as the team is adding back a player who missed a full season, but there’s a strong case to be made that what the Pacers need right now, struggles and all, is fewer rotation changes — not more.