A wise man once said, “If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.”
Those are words by Udonis Haslem, the ultimate #HeatLifer. If you call yourself a Miami fan and don’t know who he is, well, then shame on you.
And if you weren’t inspired by what took place Tuesday night at the White Hot-themed FTX Arena, then shame on you twice.
It took a while, but the Victor Oladipo breakout performance finally happened.
Yes, I’m aware he had a nice brief run with the Miami Heat last season before getting hurt, that he torched Toronto a few weeks ago, that he dropped 40 in Orlando, and he provided some solid minutes in Game 4.
But Game 5, with a chance to close out the pesky, 8th-seeded Hawks, was different. The stakes were higher in a game with much more meaningful repercussions and lack of star power.
For starters, Kyle Lowry (hamstring) was ruled out again. Jimmy Butler (knee) was a surprise scratch, which meant Oladipo got the starting nod. More than that, he had the responsibility of being the opening unit’s lead creator added to his list of responsibilities.
In a playoff matchup, that’s heavy lifting for someone who many people wondered whether or not he would be able to play at a high level once again.
Not only did he perform admirably – he passed with flying colors.
Oladipo finished with 23 points on 8-16 shooting, including 3-6 from deep and 4-4 from the foul line. He added 3 assists, 3 steals, and was a +7 in a 3-point win, 97-94.
The idea of Oladipo playing regular minutes in the playoffs was thought of as an emergency plan because of how he had fallen off the rotation, following some uninspiring performances in March. The idea was Oladipo could relieve someone else ahead of him in the depth chart – like a Gabe Vincent or Duncan Robinson, if either or both guys dipped in performance.
That, or it would be because of injuries. This part ultimately proved true.
Despite the injury report, the Heat are now on their way to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where a battle with either the Philadelphia 76ers or Toronto Raptors awaits. Game 1 is on Monday in Miami.
Atlanta, an East finalist last season, is off to an interesting offseason after it was clearly established how far off they are from punching in the same weight class with the best teams their conference has to offer.
The Hawks entered the series almost as an “I’ll zag instead of zig” pick in some bracket predictions. Perhaps these people were carried away by the allure of Trae Young and Atlanta’s memorable playoff run last season, or because of the Hawks’ leading man’s individual brilliance in the play-in tournament.
Instead, these facts held true:
1: Miami didn’t need to be at full strength to eliminate Atlanta.
2: Frankly speaking, this series should have been a sweep.
3: Young has a lot of work to do in improving his game, given how Miami provided the blueprint to stop him.
Oladipo kept Miami from trailing Atlanta early with timely bursts of scoring. There was a confidence and swagger to how he moved, the closest he’s looked to the All-Star Oladipo of old while he’s been in a Miami uniform, which indicated from the get-go that he’d have a big role in determining the game’s outcome.
Without Butler around, that was vital for the Heat.
There were a few times when Oladipo made high-degree difficulty shots by gliding in the air and contorting his body.
Was it mesmerizing to watch? Yes.
Although each instance it occurred, there was a collective gasp followed by sigh of a relief when he finally got back up and looked okay, not only because of how integral he was to close out Atlanta, but also because of what he can now contribute the rest of the way in Miami’s championship hunt.
Even when Lowry and Butler return, there’s a strong case for Oladipo to remain in the rotation. How that manifests exactly will be determined by Erik Spoelstra, who has six days to figure it out before Miami plays again. That’s also the amount of time the ailing Butler, Lowry, and also PJ Tucker will get to recover for what will surely be a challenging series against a better opponent.
Oladipo’s defense remains stout. His offense is catching up. His first step looks deadly.
Good morning, everyone. Icymi, the Victor Oladipo comeback had its most emphatic moment as Miami closed out the Hawks.— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) April 27, 2022
He looked like the Vic of old.
Oh, and all of #HeatTwitter probably has the same expression today that Jimmy did last night pic.twitter.com/3Q5mf9WMxb
It was fitting that the game’s most crucial basket, an Adebayo dunk, was courtesy of an Oladipo pass. We’re aware by now that Vic’s scoring, particularly his jumper, might come and go, although his natural instinct to pass to open teammates when he draws multiple defenders is the kind of skill you cannot teach, and significant for a team that is lethal offensively when the drive-and-kick game is going right.
He provides another herky-jerky, change-of-pace, three-level scoring weapon that Miami has needed all season long.
“It’s a blessing at the end of the day to be able to play the game that I love. A year ago today, I was expecting and waiting for my next surgery. I remember… around this time last year, I was sitting in the dark room by myself and just broke down,” Oladipo shared post-game.
The Heat's @VicOladipo, who scored 23 points in Miami's series closeout W vs Atlanta, opened up about the dark place he was in this time a year ago - sidelined again by injury, breaking down in tears.— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) April 27, 2022
Considering the journey he's been through, what a remarkable turnaround. pic.twitter.com/ke7HqYWLrD
“Not because I quit but because I was at the lowest point I could be at. Now, God has put me in this position today. So, I just made the most of it.”
It shouldn’t be assumed that Vic had a perfect outing. There were minor areas he could have been better at, like cleaning a few finger marks on a dusty computer screen:
There was a switch on defense he was late to react to which allowed the hot-shooting De’Andre Hunter a clean look from deep during Atlanta’s late-game comeback. There was the foul on Trae from behind that sent him to the line with under a minute to go and Miami up by 4. There were a few times when Oladipo’s over-dribbling in the perimeter led to squandered offensive possessions. Ball security could also use some tightening.
Overall, however, it’s tough to complain too much. Like in any other situation in life, context is important. In this case, it’s also quite unique. From his perspective:
“I can’t really explain why I’m going through what I went through,” Oladipo opened up.
“I can’t really explain why I’m here today, but I’m staying in the moment and making every moment mean something. I’m just going out there and playing hard, man.”
Other standouts deserve their praise, too.
Tyler Herro converted a number of tough, contested fadeaway jumpers that were crucial in keeping Miami ahead. Although his performance wasn’t reminiscent of the dominant Tyler performances from the regular season, his contributions were good enough for what his team required to prevent another flight to Atlanta.
Bam played a classic Bam game, which anyone who’s watched this team all season long knows is essential to their success.
The defense, even without two important pieces, was as formidable as ever.
Trae Young in this series vs Miami:— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) April 27, 2022
6 TOPG pic.twitter.com/ru7Mg4gHqz
Spoelstra threw the entire kitchen sink of defensive options at Young, who faced double-teams, unsolvable switches, irritating help defenders, off-ball pests, and full-court pressure. Gabe Vincent will probably haunt him in a nightmare or two in the coming months.
The physicality and different looks bothered Young so much that his body language looked all out of sorts. He missed a crucial open 3-ball in the fourth quarter so badly that it hit the side of the backboard. He was assessed a technical foul with less than half the final period to go, and he missed a late free throw following the Oladipo foul despite shooting 91% from the charity stripe during the regular season.
For the series, he averaged as many turnovers as he did assists. Miami also took away his lob options, confusing him every step of the way.
Young is a great basketball player. There’s no mistaking that. But there comes a time in each marquee guy’s career when he faces a moment of truth, and it’s usually when a superior team with championship-level defense forces said player to re-assess how he operates against the best counters the opposition has to offer.
(Remember LeBron James in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks?)
How will Young respond? Time will tell. Perhaps, it will be in another playoff series down the line between these two Southeast Division adversaries.
“We had a great win, a great series, but the job isn’t done yet,” Oladipo said.
“There’s still a lot more basketball left, but I just got to keep getting better, man. That’s what I’m focused on doing, is getting better. It’s my 9th game, so I got a lot of room to improve.”
While it’s true that there are still higher levels for Oladipo to get to, this much is also significant:
If he continues to contribute like this, Miami is even more dangerous than they were before the playoffs started.
4 down, 12 to go.