Regular-season Victor Oladipo remains at large, and the Indiana Pacers need him to get back on the grid as they face postseason elimination.
Now down 3-2 in their first-round series after Wednesday's 98-95 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers need a hero. They need their hero, the one that carried them all year.
Oladipo finished Wednesday's defeat with 12 points on 2-of-15 shooting overall and 1-of-7 from deep. Over his last three games, he's shooting just 24 percent from the floor and 21.7 percent from long range with 12 made buckets and 10 turnovers.
The key turning point in the game—a third-quarter blitz by the Cavs from which Indy never recovered—hinged on the exploitation of Oladipo's suddenly conspicuous weaknesses.
Cleveland switched the high screen-and-roll repeatedly in the first half, resulting in several post-up mismatches that favored the Pacers. Domantas Sabonis and Thaddeus Young got loads of good looks as a result. After halftime, the Cavs scrapped the switches and either dropped the big man in the pick-and-roll or outright trapped Oladipo, forcing him to either hit pull-up jumpers (he didn't) or read the floor under duress (he couldn't).
LeBron James capitalized on one of Oladipo's rote reads early in the third quarter, sniffing out the easy escape valve and, well...
Throughout the series, Oladipo has endured rough stretches against non-switching pick-and-roll schemes. Despite advancing in so many other ways, he's still a one-pass-away floor surveyor at this point in his development. Traps rattle him, and he doesn't yet excel at finding the true weaknesses in the defense.
In a macro sense, what happened in the second half of Game 5 was a strong example of how the playoffs are different. Phenomenal all year, Oladipo has run into a Cavs defense (which was atrocious all season) that he hasn't figured out how to crack.
Cue up the cliche: It's a make-or-miss league. Handling the traps is just a matter of reps.
Backing up a second, this can't all be on Oladipo.
James was a wrecking ball, finishing with 44 points on 14-of-24 shooting, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He conducted a one-man layup line for most of the contest—until he stepped out to 25 feet and hit the buzzer-beating game-winner. On some level, talking about anything but James' unrivaled greatness after that performance feels inconsequential.
But from Indiana's perspective, the focus can't be on James' transcendent play, which is a given. The Pacers can't do anything about that. Instead, the attention must shift to what gives them the best chance of surviving another game. That's Oladipo getting right.
To Oladipo's credit, he settled down as the game progressed. Late in the fourth quarter, he found a rolling Sabonis, who missed what would have been a game-tying layup. The next time he was trapped, he swung the ball quickly to Cory Joseph, who zipped it to Sabonis at the foul line for a wide-open jumper.
Oladipo has only been good enough to warrant this kind of defensive attention since the start of this year. In a way, that we even know about these deficiencies is a compliment. He's become dominant enough to warrant treatment typically given to superstars.
If he truly is one, he has to prove it in Game 6.
Why Do We Even Have Replay?
Did this ball land on the baseline before bouncing up to hit James' elbow?
Was this a goaltend?
No and no, according to real-time calls that weren't subjected to reviews. It would have been nice to be 100 percent certain.
Holy Moly, LeBron
There's just nothing to say.
The Culture Reset Is Alive and Well
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan disappeared late in Game 5, but the Toronto Raptors won anyway, getting their final 18 points in a 108-98 win over the Washington Wizards from Delon Wright, Jonas Valanciunas and CJ Miles.
It's hard to think of a more validating result for the Raptors' culture reset.
After several recent playoff failures, Toronto spent the offseason changing its approach rather than its personnel. Head coach Dwane Casey wanted more movement on offense, more passing, less standing around and more long-range shooting.
In years past, Toronto rose and fell (and always fell in the playoffs) as DeRozan and Lowry took turns isolating or firing away in stagnant sets. Opponents never had to guess where the ball was going.
But in beating the Wizards on Wednesday and taking a 3-2 series lead, Toronto proved it made the right changes this summer. In the past, late-game failures by DeRozan and Lowry would have sunk the Raps.
Now, they have other options.
Russell Westbrook Really Is Something
Behold Russell Westbrook's numbers from Game 5 on Wednesday: 45 points—20 of which came in the third quarter—on 17-of-39 shooting, 15 rebounds and seven assists while playing all 24 second-half minutes. Most importantly, a 107-99 win for the Oklahoma City Thunder and at least one more game in their series against the Utah Jazz.
As Westbrook attacked in the third quarter again and again, erasing a 25-point OKC deficit in less than nine minutes, you could see the Jazz coming unglued. Overwhelmed and uncharacteristically disjointed, Utah fell apart in the wake of a true-blue, bona fide superstar takeover.
Can Russ do it again? Almost definitely not, especially with the series returning to Utah for Game 6. But the numbers involved in OKC's stirring Westbrook-led comeback must have the Jazz shook. This never happens, literally:
The Jazz might come out in Game 6 and look just like the team that ran up a 3-1 series lead (not to mention that 25-point advantage in the third quarter). If that's how it plays out, Westbrook's explosion will be a footnote in a larger narrative about how Utah ascended on the strength of its team play.
But Westbrook unfurled the kind of performance that can change the psychological tone of a series.
So Is Rudy Gobert
It bears mentioning that the Thunder took off after Gobert hit the bench with his fourth foul at the 9:23 mark of the third quarter. Utah's big man was a plus-seven in a game his team lost by eight points. Without him snuffing out the pick-and-roll, making shooters think twice in the lane and controlling the defensive glass, Utah couldn't keep pace with Westbrook's heroics.
Whatever lingering doubts there might have been about Gobert's status as one of the league's most valuable players disappeared in that third-quarter collapse.
If I'm a Thunder player, my first priority in Game 6 is falling down whenever Gobert so much as breathes on me. Getting him out of the game changes everything.
The Wolves Failed the Math Test
A number of elements contributed to the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round elimination at the hands of the top-seeded Houston Rockets. Andrew Wiggins was missing in action for most of the series, Karl-Anthony Towns never quite got going and the Rockets executed better on both ends.
But even if more had gone right for the T-Wolves, it might not have mattered. They got the math wrong from the jump.
Coming into Wednesday's 122-104 loss, Minnesota had made 150 field goals to Houston's 151. Houston, though had made 21 more threes than the Timberwolves. Hence the 3-1 advantage.
On Wednesday, the Rockets made just five more shots than Minnesota but doubled up with an 18-to-9 advantage on makes from distance. More importantly, Houston attempted 44 threes, while Minnesota fired up only 19.
Minnesota has to figure out how much Wiggins cares about basketball (while paying him a max salary that'll kick in next year), get Towns more post touches and find some bench bodies it can trust. But it'd also be nice if the T-Wolves, who took fewer triples than any team in the NBA this season, finally embraced the fact that three is indeed more than two.