After dropping Games 1 and 2 of their first-round playoff series in Cleveland, the Pacers appeared on their way to an emphatic bounce-back win in Game 3 on Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
But LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers showed why they are the reigning NBA champions in the second half. James registered a triple-double and scored 28 of his game-high 41 points over the final two quarters to lead the Cavs to a stunning 119-114 comeback win.
The Pacers set a franchise record for points in the first half of a playoff game, opening up a 74-49 lead over the Cavaliers through two quarters. But Cleveland rallied, outscoring Indiana 35-17 in the third quarter and eventually moving in front with 6:28 remaining in the fourth.
“Here we are up (25) to start the second half and a chance to put our foot on their throat,” Pacers forward Paul George said after the loss. “And we came out relaxed.”
The two teams wound up trading the lead four times over the next couple minutes before LeBron James’ layup off an inbounds pass gave Cleveland a 105-104 lead with 4:52 to play. Kyle Korver’s 3-pointer pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to four points, but George answered with a triple of his own on the other end.
James, however, continued his brilliant second-half performance by burying a three from the left corner that made it 111-107 with 2:50 remaining. The next basket didn’t come until Channing Frye’s 3-pointer with 54.8 seconds left, the finishing touch on Cleveland’s colossal comeback.
“We didn’t pressure on the ball, we didn’t make anything tough,” George said about the second half. “I thought they had stretches where they were walking into wide-open 3-pointers. They can’t do that.
“We got beat like that in Game 1. We got beat like that in Game 2. At some point, we’ve got to nip that in the bud.”
James finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists, going 14-for-27 from the field and 6-for-12 from 3-point range.
George was as brilliant in the loss, nearly recording his own triple-double. He finished with 36 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists.
The Pacers, however, struggled mightily in the second half, making just 13-of-51 shots (25.5 percent) over the final two quarters.
“How we played in the first half, they played in the second,” Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said. “We just let down.”
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The first quarter was a back-and-forth affair initially, with four ties and six lead changes in the early going. But the Pacers seized control midway through the period when their reserves triggered a 10-0 run to give the Blue & Gold the first sizable advantage of the night.
Stephenson brought the energy off the bench in the early going. The fan favorite received a standing ovation when he first checked into the contest, then promptly drilled an open 3-pointer. Stephenson set up fellow reserve Kevin Seraphin early and often in the first quarter, as the Frenchman racked up nine points in just 4:25 in the opening frame, six of them coming during that 10-0 run.
As a team, Indiana was on fire in the opening period, knocking down 14-of-21 shots (66.7 percent) to open up a 37-27 lead over the defending champs.
“They definitely jumped all over us,” James said. “We knew we’d have to take one of their punches, but they gave us a flurry, more than we expected.”
The home team also got an encouraging lift early from second-year center Myles Turner. The team’s third-leading scorer struggled mightily in the first two games of the series in Cleveland, but he knocked down a jumper on the opening possession of Game 3 and ignited the crowd in the second quarter with arguably the best dunk of his young career.
Turner missed a jumper on the right baseline, but hustled past Kevin Love to collect his own rebound, then bodied Tristan Thompson out of the way in mid-air while throwing down a monster one-handed slam that sent the sellout crowd into hysterics. Turner was so jacked up by the dunk he was still pounding his chest and gesturing to the crowd when J.R. Smith’s 3-point attempt bounced out of bounds on the ensuing possession.
George, meanwhile, got off to an uncharacteristically slow start offensively, missing his first four shots and scoring just two points in the first quarter before returning to his torrid playoff production in the second period. George erupted for 21 points in the second quarter alone, helping Indiana stretch its lead to as many as 26 points and taking a 74-49 lead into the break.
Indiana’s 74 first-half points shattered the previous franchise NBA playoff record of 65, set on June 2, 1995 against Orlando and again on April 17, 2004 vs. Boston. The Pacers shot 56.8 percent from the floor and went 10-for-17 from 3-point range in the first half.
“That first half, we felt like a real team,” Stephenson said. “We were playing together, we were pushing the ball, we were making the right plays, we were hitting the open guys.
“We were having fun.”
But the Cavaliers opened the third quarter with a 13-3 run to trim the deficit to 15. The Pacers pushed their lead back to 20 points after back-to-back 3-pointers by Jeff Teague and Stephenson, only for Cleveland to immediately reel off 14 unanswered points, capped by a James three from eight feet beyond the 3-point line.
A pair of Seraphin free throws ended the Pacers’ scoreless streak, but James hit another 3-pointer on the other end to make it 89-84 with 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Stephenson drew James’ fourth foul on the ensuing possession and knocked down both foul shots to give Indiana a seven-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
“We couldn’t push like we were because we weren’t getting stops,” Pacers guard C.J. Miles said about the Pacers’ second-half slump. “We were getting stops in the first half so that allowed us to push the tempo and move the ball and not let the defense get set.
“When you’re not getting stops, now you’re coming down against a more set defense every time and kind of getting stagnant.”
The Cavaliers continued to chip away at Indiana’s lead in the fourth quarter, eventually tying the game at 98 on James’ driving dunk with seven minutes to play.
Cleveland stripped the ball from George on the next possession, leading to another dunk for James on the break, giving the Cavs their first lead since the 6:41 mark in the first quarter. Jeff Teague put the Pacers back in front with an acrobatic 3-pointer while drawing a foul on the other end, setting the stage for a wild finish that seemed utterly inconceivable just an hour and a half earlier.
“It happened so fast,” Stephenson marveled after the game.
Teague had 15 points and seven assists in the loss, while Thaddeus Young recorded a double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds. Stephenson added 13 points and six boards off the bench.
Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and Frye each scored 13 points for Cleveland, while Korver added 12 on 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range.
The Pacers will look to stave off elimination on Sunday afternoon in Game 4, scheduled for 1:00 PM ET at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“We’re playing for pride now,” Teague said. “We’re all competitors in here and we all believe in one another.
“We ain’t getting swept.”
Inside the Numbers
The Cavaliers outscored Indiana 70-40 in the second half. Cleveland shot 55.3 percent from the field and 12-for-21 (57.1 percent) from 3-point range and committed zero turnovers over the final two quarters.
George set a new playoff mark with 23 points in the first half and his 21 points in the second quarter, matched his most in any quarter ever (regular season or playoffs).
George’s 15 rebounds were a playoff career high. He previously had 14 on April 24, 2014 at Atlanta and on May 14, 2013 against the Knicks.
Young had his fourth career postseason double-double and set a new playoff career high with 14 rebounds.
The Pacers have now lost the first three games of a best-of-seven playoff series for the second time in franchise history. They also dropped their first three games in the first round to top-seeded Chicago in 2011 and eventually lost the series in five games.
James finished with the seventh 40-point triple-double in NBA history.
The Cavaliers won despite not playing All-Stars Love and Irving at all in the fourth quarter. They instead rode with James and bench players like Korver, Frye, and Deron Williams after James, Korver, and Frye combined for 32 of Indiana’s 35 points in the third quarter.
You Can Quote Me On That
“I thought we came out kind of passive. You knew they were going to be more aggressive, taking the ball to the basket and lining up for the three-ball. When they started to get momentum, I thought we got a little hesitant with our offense. I just don’t think we established that killer instinct.” -Pacers head coach Nate McMillan
“We just got away from what the first half was about. I thought in the first half we did a great job of attacking early in the offense, attacking early in the shot clock, getting the ball up early and exploring, really. I thought we slowed the pace, slowed the game down and that gives a team momentum. And they took advantage of it in the second half.” -George
“I just think we weren’t making shots and we weren’t making the same plays we were in the first half. With a team like that, we have to put them away. We got to the fourth and just kept making mistakes, and we just can’t do that against a team like that.” -Pacers guard Monta Ellis
“Channing (Frye), Shump (Iman Shumpert), D-Will (Deron Williams) and Kyle (Korver), we were on point defensively and offensively we knew exactly what we wanted to get to. The best way to get offense is to defensively create missed shots.” -James on the Cavaliers’ late-game lineup
Stat of the Night
The Cavaliers set a new NBA playoff record for largest halftime deficit overcome (25 points). Overall, the Cavaliers’ 26-point comeback tied for the third-biggest comeback in NBA playoffs history.
- McMillan changed his starting lineup in Game 3. After starting Ellis at shooting guard in Games 1 and 2, he replaced him with Miles.
- James moved past Kobe Bryant (5,640) for third place on the NBA’s career playoff scoring list. James now has 5,670 career points in the postseason.
- According to ESPN Stats & Info, Thursday was James’ 14th career playoff game with at least 30 points and 10 assists, tying Jerry West for second most in NBA history. Michael Jordan is the all-time leader with 15 career 30-point, 10-assist playoff games.
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