There’s been little to enjoy so far in watching the Miami Heat trounce the short-handed Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA playoffs. Pascal Siakam’s elbow broke Joel Embiid’s eye socket and put him into the concussion protocol at the end of Philadelphia’s first-round series, and while their centerpiece star might return before the series is over, the Sixers have been severely outgunned without him. Their atrocious 14-of-64 shooting from three so far hasn’t helped, and neither has the staggering husk of DeAndre Jordan, but few playoff teams would be able to shrug off the loss of a superstar like Embiid. The Sixers, it is now clear, are not one of those.
So you have to find your own bliss while watching a series like this. For me, that crystalized in Game 2 thanks to the fine showing of a near-forgotten former star. It won’t go down in history as one of the great playoff performances, but seeing Victor Oladipo looking like pre-injury Victor Oladipo has made this whole slog worth watching.
If you remember the version of Victor Oladipo that was one of the league’s most electrifying backcourt players in ’17-18, you might have recognized the guy flying around the floor for Miami on Wednesday night. There was Oladipo, moving fluidly around Philly’s half-court defense to either create shots or weave his way in for his own layups. There he was, hitting wide-open threes, something that, as a career 35 percent shooter from deep, was never a hallmark of his game even at his peak. Finally, there Oladipo most certainly was, locking down James Harden and turning the jets on the other way for a twisting fast break basket.
For the night, Oladipo finished with 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting, while hitting three of his four three-pointer attempts. He added that stellar defense on Harden throughout his 29 minutes on the floor, helping to neutralize the only real weapon Philly has at its disposal with Embiid out. More than that, though, Oladipo fit seamlessly onto a team for which he played just 12 games for this season, playoffs included. How much of the former All-NBA star is still in there is hard to know, but Oladipo gives Erik Spoelstra yet another bouncy wing that can defend, hit open threes, and keep the ball moving. Miami has plenty of those, but one more can’t hurt.
If you don’t remember that other version of Oladipo, it would be hard to blame you. It’s been a busy few years, and he’s been gone for quite a while. The former DeMatha Catholic High School prospect and Indiana University star was emerging as an All-NBA talent when he tore his quad tendon in January of 2019, which put him on the shelf for over a year. Back then, Oladipo was the most exciting member of an Indiana Pacers team that looked like it could be a contender in the Eastern Conference. After his return from injury on January 29, 2020, he was clearly not the same player that won Most Improved Player in 2017-2018. He’d been away from the league for 371 days.
The Pacers no longer looked like a contender, and Oladipo was shipped off to Houston in January of 2021, after reportedly asking opponents if he could play with them in what was one of the sadder bits of rumor fodder the NBA has seen in some time. Oladipo played in 20 games with the Rockets, but his stint was most notable for his decision to turn down a two-year max contract extension. When Miami trade for him in March of 2021, it seemed like a reasonable, low-risk chance to take. The upside was that Oladipo could become one more piece for a solid Heat team coming off of a Finals appearance in the bubble. It didn’t turn out that way.
After less than two months with the Heat, Oladipo was back on the shelf, this time to repair the same tendon he tore while at Indiana. Though he re-signed with the Heat in the summer of 2021 for the veteran’s minimum, no Miami fan could have expected him to play any significant role for the team as it looked to hold down the number one seed in the East and go deep in the playoffs once again. When Oladipo returned to action in March of this year, he looked mostly like an end-of-the-bench player. That is, until the last game of the regular season. With the team resting most of its star players, Oladipo put up 40 points in a loss against the Magic. It was a sign, maybe, that he could be back, and so should be back in Miami’s rotation.
In Miami’s first round series against Atlanta, Oladipo didn’t get any burn during the first three games, and his 23 minute appearance in Game 4 didn’t get anyone all that excited: six points, on 3-of-10 shooting. Game 5 was a different story, though, as Oladipo came in and played 36 minutes, tied for a season-high with that 40-point explosion against Orlando. He made the most of them, too. Against an Atlanta team that was clearly overmatched, Oladipo scored 23 on 50 percent shooting from both the field and three-point land. He flashed the tools that he’s always had at his disposal, flowing around the half-court like a ghost of ballers past. He looked like Victor Oladipo.
That this series is 2-0 in Miami’s favor isn’t particularly surprising. Given Embiid’s absence—he might return for Game 3, or he might not—the Heat have to be the overwhelming favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. So far, despite a couple of second quarter scares in both games, Miami is doing what it has to do to build enough of a cushion so that the return of one of the best players in the league won’t ruin the party. There are many more thrilling ways to win a playoff series, although Heat fans will surely take it.
Oladipo’s return to form, then, stands out as the most interesting storyline that Miami has going for it right now. It even has some baked-in drama, courtesy of rumors—which both Oladipo and Jimmy Butler have tried to debunk—that Butler hates him and wants him off the floor. Whatever their relationship is or isn’t, the two seem to enjoy playing together just fine. Perhaps Butler realizes what everyone watching this dreadful series can see clearly—that while he might not be the guy he once was, Victor Oladipo seemingly still has plenty of gas left in the tank.