Though Victor Oladipo started in Thursday’s opening scrimmage for the Indiana Pacers, the decision hasn’t been officially made for his participation in the regular season and beyond.
“I think today was big, just getting our conditioning up and getting a feel for the game again,” Oladipo said. “Obviously it’s been a minute since all of us have played in a live game. It was just fun to be out there.”
Before the game, Pacers coach Nate McMillan said Oladipo playing in Thursday’s opener wasn’t an indicator for the future, saying that option hasn’t even been discussed to this point.
“We haven’t talked about the start of the season,” McMillan said. “We’ve basically been focused for this first preseason game, and he’s available for tonight.”
Oladipo played 19 minutes in Indiana’s 91-88 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, scoring eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.
“My body and mind just have to get used to the flow of the game again,” he said. “That’ll come. But overall I felt pretty decent.”
Oladipo returned in late January after a severe injury in 2019, a ruptured quad tendon. Without a training camp or preseason games to knock rust off, Oladipo showed serious signs of needing to find his rhythm again, struggling in the first few weeks back. The Pacers took a nosedive upon his return, too, losing six of seven. But it turned around for both the Pacers and Oladipo the more he played, with the team winning eight of 11 heading into the hiatus. Oladipo had his best game the night before the break, scoring 27 points in 29 minutes.
“In January and February, it was just about getting comfortable again, and I think me right now, I’m a lot more comfortable now after getting some practice in,” he said. “Physically I feel better than I did back then.”
In early July, Oladipo announced he wouldn’t be participating in the Orlando restart as he continued to work back to full strength, pointing to being completely ready for next season, after which he will be a free agent.
But after traveling with the team to Orlando and participating in practices and intrasquad scrimmages, Oladipo exceeded his own expectations — with teammates saying he has been a standout practice performer — and felt he was ready to play.
“I think everyone’s praising me for being the best in practice because they remember what I looked like in January,” Oladipo said with a smile. “I feel like I’m getting better every day, getting better every week, knock on wood.”
Oladipo said the plan remains to reassess every day and then make determinations from that point. So in terms of the Pacers’ planning for a restart with their All-NBA guard, they’ll have to continue to wait and see.
“I think you’ve just got to know if you’re OK or not, at the end of the day,” Oladipo said. “This is obviously a unique situation, it’s a unique injury for myself. I don’t think it’s me not thinking I can do it; I know my body better than anyone else. I know what I’m feeling. No one else knows what I’m feeling.
“Even though it might look good to you, or to whoever that’s looking at me, I hold myself to a different standard, so the abilities that I’m used doing, you’ve never done it before,” he said. “Ain’t none of y’all have. You understand? So for me, I’m trying to get back to that, you understand, trying to get back to that feeling, trying to get back to make sure my knee, myself is 100 percent so I can go and perform at the highest level that you guys are used to seeing me at. That’s what it’s all about.”
On the other side, the Blazers got their own returning player boosts, with both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins appearing in the starting lineup. Nurkic returned to his first game action since breaking his leg late in the 2018-19 season, and Collins was back after having shoulder surgery in November.
“I think everybody that was anxious to see Zach and Nurk were probably pleased to see how they played,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
Nurkic posted 14 points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes, with Collins adding six and four in 19 minutes.
“It’s just great to be back,” Nurkic said. “The feeling, just no words, man.
“It’s been a journey for myself, personally,” he said. “I think emotional wise, it was easier. Obviously no fans out there, they have like a fake sound fence around the arena. But for me, the approach didn’t change.”
With Nurkic and Collins back, the Blazers are adjusting to playing as a much bigger team, sliding Carmelo Anthony down to play his old position of small forward. The plan, Stotts has said, is to even give Nurkic significant minutes alongside fellow 7-footer Hassan Whiteside.
And with Nurkic and Collins back to join the Blazers’ dynamic backcourt, Portland appears set to make a serious push at the West’s 8-seed in the upcoming seeding games.
“Obviously [coronavirus] was bad for the world and everything, but I think in my case it really helped myself get 100 percent and body wise, recovery,” Nurkic said. “Be able to have a camp in coming back from injury, I’m really grateful for that.”