All season long, the Pacers have bounced back quickly after their “bad” losses, the ones in which they weren’t competitive or failed at home against inferior teams. At the next practice session, they were dependably upbeat and talkative with one another while shooting free throws when the media was allowed in.
Not so on Friday, the morning after one of the most perplexing and frustrating losses in the franchise’s postseason history. Clearly that loss to Cleveland, featuring a squandered 25-point halftime lead, will take a while to get over. Call it a hangover, call it a mourning period, they’ll need time to rebound emotionally.
“It’s weighing on me today,” said Paul George, who uncharacteristically was one of the first players off the court. “It will weigh on me tomorrow, probably up until Sunday.”
Sunday brings Game 4 of their first-round playoff series against the Cavs. It might as well be Game 7 for the Pacers, who trail 3-0 and face elimination with another loss. Playoff eliminations are difficult enough, but eliminations that come with a sweep that ends on your home court are even worse. For the Pacers, in fact, it would be unprecedented, as they’ve never been swept in a seven-game playoff series.
To avoid making history, they’ll have to regain the mojo that carried them through a 74-point first half on Thursday. They won’t need to score 74, a franchise record for the first half of a playoff game, but they’ll certainly need to avoid the malaise that brought the second-half meltdown.
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The Pacers watched nearly 90 minutes of video on Friday, then took to the practice court to shoot. (Cleveland took the day off.) They will focus on game strategies and spirit-revival on Saturday, and plan to be ready to go again on Sunday.
Coach Nate McMillan, however, didn’t view Friday’s quiet atmosphere as an indication of resignation.
“More pissed off,” he said. “Pissed off that we allowed that game to get away, which we should be. We had control of that game and you need to learn a lesson from that game. It’s a 48-minute game and you have to come out with even more urgency in that third quarter to put this team away.”
The video revealed the obvious. The Pacers played a game of extremes, one of the best halves in franchise history followed by one of the worst. The explanation was simple. The offense grew stagnant in the second half, open shots were difficult to get and shooters grew tentative.
“I guess we used all our bullets,” Lance Stephenson said of the first half, forcing a smile.
McMillan said he warned his players against a letdown at halftime. He had seen his team’s tendency to relax too much with comfortable leads throughout the season, and knew even a 25-point lead wasn’t enough to guarantee a win against the defending champions, led by the force field of LeBron James.
“We didn’t execute what I talked about at half,” McMillan said. “We needed to be the aggressors. You can’t come out and get on your heels.
“The one thing I showed was how calm (the Cavs) were, even when we went up by 25 or 26 points. We were more patient in the first half, moving the ball, our spacing was good. The second half we’re playing against the shot clock and playing a lot of one-on-one basketball. We weren’t getting good shots and everything was contested.”
The Pacers’ offense was bogged down in part by their failure to get defensive stops in the second half. More often than not, they had to take the ball out of the net and try to get a shot out of their halfcourt offense, rather than running and playing more randomly in transition. And while there was plenty of blame to share for the second-half demise, McMillan said Jeff Teague bears the greatest responsibility to keep the offense flowing.
“It starts there,” he said. “Point guards establish that tempo on both ends of the floor.”
The Pacers also need more from Myles Turner. The 21-year-old center is averaging just 7.7 points in the three playoff games — about half of his regular season average — on 32 percent shooting from the field.
They’ll likely need more from everybody on Sunday, unless Cleveland lets up and is willing to take the series back to its home court for Game 5. That will require a short memory, renewed enthusiasm and a narrow focus.
“We have to look at it one at a time,” George said. “We’ve got one on our floor. We’ve got to treat it as our Game 7 and we’ve got to look at this series as four Game 7’s. We’ve got to do it one game at a time.
“We’ve been good in this situation, especially closing the regular season with wins when we needed to. So hopefully we approach it the same way.”
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