It's Gut-Check Time in Cleveland

The Pacers have proven they have the substance to beat Cleveland. Now it’s a matter of whether they can take care of the details.

Defending screens and pick and rolls.

Defending the 3-point line.

Committing fewer needless fouls.

And, ultimately, getting and hitting game-winning shots.

“Just little things we didn’t do,” Paul George said.

The Pacers’ 109-108 loss to Cleveland in Game 1 of their playoffs series on Saturday was equal parts uplifting and discouraging, a glass-half-full kind of game much like their double-overtime loss to the Cavs two Sundays ago.

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They should know by now they can beat the defending champions. But they should also know time is running short to prove it. Monday’s game at Quicken Loans Arena would be the ideal time to show it, to take homecourt advantage and put doubt into the minds of the Cavs, who seem vulnerable after carrying a four-game losing streak and a half-season of mediocre play into the postseason.

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They gave themselves a chance, yes, but the Cavs gave them chances, too. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving missed late layups that kept the door open for the Pacers, who fought back from a 10-point deficit with nine minutes remaining to take a 105-103 lead with 3 ½ minutes left.

The comeback was impressive, but what happened from there was not. James immediately scored on a driving dunk to tie the game. Paul George missed a jumper off an impatient one-on-one move. Irving hit a 20-footer off James’ assist. Jeff Teague was stripped by Irving while driving to the basket. Teague fouled J.R. Smith’s drive, and Smith hit one of the foul shots. Lance Stephenson fired an out-of-rhythm 3-pointer when the offense bogged down. Teague fouled James, who hit one of two foul shots. Myles Turner became flustered holding the ball at the foul line and was stripped by Irving.

Just like that, the Pacers trailed by four points. They got back in the game after Turner blocked Irving’s layup and the Cavs lost the ball out of bounds, setting up George’s 28-foot 3-pointer that made it a one-point game with 40 seconds left.

James missed a 3-pointer to give the Pacers a chance to win, but once again they failed to execute. Following a timeout and then a foul, they gave the ball to George. He drew a double-team and passed to C.J. Miles, who came up short on a lean-back 20-foot jumper.

The Pacers had succumbed in similar fashion in their double-overtime loss to the Cavs on April 2, when Turner wound up with the ball and missed in the final seconds. It wasn’t the ideal shot from the ideal player – that would be George – but it wasn’t a bad choice. Miles was the Pacers’ best 3-point shooter over the course of the season, and he stepped across the line to create a decent shot for himself.

The Pacers’ last possession is ripe for debate.

Coach Nate McMillan hinted at his displeasure with it, saying, “We just didn’t execute that last play.”

George — who finished with 29 points, five rebounds and seven assists — said he wanted Miles to return the ball to him for the last shot. And he didn’t have to say it, given the look he shot Miles after the buzzer sounded.

“I talked to CJ about it,” he said. “Situations like that, I’ve got to get the last shot.”

Miles can’t be blamed. He got off his shot with just one second on the clock after faking and taking a dribble to get open. George was standing farther from the basket than he was, and wouldn’t have had a better shot even if he got the ball in time to square up and shoot.

George was right to give up the ball. James said he would have done the same thing, and has many times in his career. He was wrong to criticize Miles for taking the shot. But he might turn out to be right for questioning his team’s toughness.

The Pacers’ defense was severely lacking until the fourth quarter, when the Cavs scored just 17 points. They too often wound up with mismatches after the Cavs set screens on the 3-point line, most notably Teague stuck trying to defend James, and failed to intercept drives off pick-and-rolls with help defense.

With James’ ability to explode to the basket and an array of 3-point shooters, the Cavs leave the Pacers with a dilemma. Switch on screens and they wind up with mismatches. Try to fight through screens and James could leave jet streams on his way to the basket for dunks or passes for easy shots.

“We’ll look at it and see,” George said. “But we’ve definitely got to get better in that area.”

More than coaching strategy, George questioned his teammates’ toughness.

“It’s gut-checking time,” he said. “We’ve just got to challenge them. I didn’t think we did that well enough, as far as being physical and really just playing tough. I don’t think we did that on the defensive end. They walked wherever they wanted to, they ran wherever they wanted to. Nothing about that has playoff written over it. I’ve been saying that all year and trying to challenge guys to be tougher. If we’re going to get dinged (by referees) for cheap fouls, we’ve play a little tougher.”

Bold words. Words that risk offending teammates.

“This is playoffs,” George said. “That right there shouldn’t upset the locker room. You should want that out of the leader. Everybody should respect that. I’m only asking that because it’s playoffs. This is where we’ve got to be at our best and I’m asking for everybody’s best. That shouldn’t upset the locker room.”

George is right, as long as he backs up his words with the level of play he displayed over the last six weeks of the season and in Saturdays’ game. Reggie Miller spoke out like that on occasion, such as when he criticized the bench effort after a loss at Milwaukee in the opening round of the 2000 playoffs. This is George’s team, and he has to be at his best for the Pacers to have a chance to dethrone the champions. So do his teammates, and if him speaking out helps, so be it.

The Pacers have a chance here. The Cavs said all the right things after the game to proclaim self-confidence, but they haven’t shown it the past couple of months.

“Say what you want, that’s not the Cleveland Cavs we saw last year,” ESPN commentator Grant Hill said. “I do think they’re vulnerable. Their last 30 games have not been championship level basketball.”

The Pacers are a different team, too. Lance Stephenson once again made a major difference, scoring 16 points in 27 minutes with seven rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. He doesn’t need to start, but he needs to play as many minutes as possible and close out games as he did on Saturday. He’s not in top shape after his layoff and his sprained left ankle isn’t healed, but he still gives the Pacers things they desperately need.

Little things — and big things — that add up.


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