If your glass is half-full, the Pacers are oh-so-close to becoming an elite team again after playing the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers to the wire five consecutive times.
If your glass if half-empty, the Pacers just got swept in a first-round playoff series, seemingly took a small step backward from the previous season, and need an overhaul.
The front office will decide which glass to drink from over the summer, but for now the Pacers’ best move is to tip their collective hat to LeBron James, move on and try to find ways to overcome the deficiencies of the past season. All James did in the Cavs’ 106-102 close-out victory on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was score 33 points, grab 10 rebounds, pass out a team-high four assists, pick off four steals, block a couple of shots and hit the game’s biggest shot, a 3-point dagger over Pacers’ center Myles Turner.
James’ dominance reiterated the argument that playoff series go to the team with the best player, and James remains the most dominant player in the NBA no matter what the creative voters of the league’s Most Valuable Player award say. He was reminiscent of the 2000 version of Shaquille O’Neal, who finished with 41 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots when the Lakers eliminated the Pacers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
The Pacers tried to overcome James’ brilliance with a group effort, and once again came tantalizingly close. Although swept in a seven-game playoff series for the first time in franchise history, they didn’t concede anything, and can legitimately look back on a competitive effort. They had a game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 1, were still within striking distance in the final minute of Game 2, had a 25-point halftime lead in Game 3 and led Sunday’s game by two points with 91 seconds left.
“It was a fight every game,” said Pacers guard Lance Stephenson, who delivered another quality performance off the bench with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting. “I don’t think they had one easy game. We tried our best. Every time we threw a punch they threw one right back.”
The Pacers’ failure to throw the last punch will haunt them and reflect upon them, but so will James’ clutch play.
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The Pacers, who trailed by 13 points with 9 ½ minutes left in the game, rallied once again and took a 102-100 lead on Thad Young’s tip-in. After a 20-second timeout, the Cavs did the smartest and simplest thing they could do: give the ball to James and get out of the way. Once Myles Turner was switched onto him, he sized up Turner at the 3-point line, dribbled and juked his way into an opening and nailed a 3-pointer with 1:08 remaining.
“He just had to show me something where I felt I could get my shot off,” James said later. “Once I saw his hands drop, I knew I had that shot. Just trusted my mechanics, what I’ve been doing and it went down.”
It was the only 3-pointer of the game for James, and the only non-layup of his 13 field goals. The Pacers either didn’t or couldn’t keep him from the basket, but playing off him might not have offered much solace. James hit 45 percent of his 3-point shots in the series. Odds were, he was going to hit a 3-pointer, drive for a dunk or layup, or pass off for a teammate’s field goal. He finished with 36 assists, three times as many as Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving.
“The whole NBA knows he’s a tough cover,” said Pacers point guard Jeff Teague, who finished with 15 points and 10 assists. “He’s really a power forward who can play point guard. He’s a tough matchup.”
To say the least. The Pacers, though, had too many self-inflicted wounds to escape scrutiny.
They scored just 10 points from the foul line, 13 fewer than Cleveland, and missed seven free throws. They also failed to score after Young’s rebound basket. James deflected the ball from Young’s dribble on the Pacers’ next possession. He then missed a 3-pointer, but Irving grabbed the long rebound and Stephenson had to foul Kyle Korver with 19.1 seconds left to stop the clock.
Korver hit both free throws to extend Cleveland’s lead to three points. Teague turned the ball over on the Pacers’ next possession. Paul George got the ball right back on a steal, but missed an open 3-pointer from the left wing with 1.9 seconds left that would have tied the game — missed the rim entirely, in fact.
“I may have rushed it,” he said. “I should have took my time in that moment. Definitely one I wish I could have back.”
Two turnovers and an air ball are not the way to close out playoff games. Their four losses to the Cavs came by a total of 16 points, tying an NBA record for the smallest margin of defeat in a four-game sweep in an NBA playoff series. James, meanwhile, led his fifth consecutive first-round sweep. He hasn’t lost a first-round game since Game 4 of Miami’s 2012 series against New York.
With a little prodding from a reporter, James recalled that game.
“J.R. (Smith) had a nice move that game, by the way,” he said. “A windmill move on the baseline. We won Game 5 though, right?”
It remains to be seen what James remembers from this series. The Pacers, though, will remember all those lost end-of-game opportunities. And George will have the memory of a poor finish to an otherwise outstanding series. He averaged 28 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists for the series, but shot just 39 percent from the field. He hit just 5-of-21 field goal attempts on Sunday, and just 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.
“Rough night,” George said. “That’s all it is. Rough night. Nothing that I haven’t dealt with for this whole series in terms of double teams and traps. Just a slow night for me to get a rhythm.”
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