Looking back, it was probably a big mistake.
That 25-point halftime lead the Pacers built over Cleveland on Thursday, the one that brought a level of bedlam to Bankers Life Fieldhouse not heard since the 2000 NBA Finals, ultimately brought out their worst tendencies — the same tendencies that have haunted them all season.
Riding high against the defending champions, the Pacers relaxed. They became stagnant and uncertain and inaccurate at the offensive end, and failed to find the fortitude to stop the Cavaliers’ landslide at the other end. That their 119-114 loss happened against the best team in the Eastern Conference, regular season records be damned, and one led by the NBA’s best player, Most Valuable Player voting be damned, made it more understandable, but all the more frustrating.
The Pacers might have been better off trailing by five or 10 points, given their nature. The way it turned out, it was one of those games where no good questions existed to address what had happened and no good answers could have explained it. You can’t expect someone who just crawled out from under an avalanche to give an insightful explanation, although there is one crucial difference: The Pacers were not innocent bystanders to their demise. They participated in it.
“It happened so fast,” Lance Stephenson said. “We just didn’t respond.
“I really don’t know what to say.”
The gold-clad sellout fans at The Fieldhouse were witnesses to history, but their team was on the wrong side of it. Cleveland, which trailed 74-59 at halftime, overcame the largest midpoint deficit ever in the NBA playoffs. Its comeback from a 26-point abyss in the final minute of the second quarter was the third-greatest of all postseason comebacks.
The Cavs knew it could happen, because they committed a similar collapse on April 9, when they lost a 26-point lead in the fourth quarter alone and fell in overtime at Atlanta. At least it took the Pacers a quarter-and-a-half to lose all of their halftime lead.
But this was a playoff game. Now trailing 3-0, they’ll have to scrape themselves off the mat and regroup in time for Game 4 on Sunday to try to avoid being swept on their home court.
Perhaps no team in the franchise’s 50 seasons has suffered a loss as agonizing as this one. They began building momentum late in the first quarter, jumping from a tie with just under four minutes remaining to a 10-point lead at the end of the period, thanks to an unlikely lift from Kevin Seraphin, who produced nine points, two rebounds and two assists during that run.
They closed the half with a 29-14 run to extend the lead to 25, delivering what seemed like a knockout blow. Paul George scored 21 points of the Pacers’ 37 points in the period and the defense limited the Cavs to 33 percent shooting.
What could go wrong, right?
The Pacers’ gentle demeanor, it turned out.
Unshaken, the Cavs came out firing in the third quarter. J.R. Smith opened the period with a 3-pointer, the first rock in the landslide. The Pacers held firm for a couple of minutes, but their offense grew increasingly aimless and their shooting arms increasingly tight.
If one possession foretold what was to come, it was after LeBron James drew a questionable foul from Myles Turner, his third, and hit two fouls shots to bring Cleveland within 21. Jeff Teague missed a driving layup on the next possession, then Thaddeus Young missed three rebound attempts at the rim. Kevin Love came back with a 3-pointer, Turner missed two shots for the Pacers, and James answered with another 3-pointer.
The lead was down to 15, and the quarter was barely five minutes old. It shrank to seven by the end of the period as the Cavs hit 7-of-13 3-pointers on their way to 35 points while the Pacers hit just 5-of-26 field goal attempts on their way to 17.
Cleveland finally took the lead, 100-98, on James’ open court dunk midway through the fourth. Teague hit a 3-pointer to regain it for the Pacers, and they would regain it two more times, but by then the outcome felt inevitable. James – who finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists – was simply unstoppable. James, in fact, played virtually the entire fourth quarter with reserves, and stilled a 35-point charge in which the Cavs hit 10-of-16 shots.
“We got stops, and we got aggressive,” James said.
The Pacers didn’t and didn’t. By the fourth quarter, with the outcome still in doubt, they had the look of a defeated team. Even during timeouts, they sat stone-faced on the bench, waiting for the coaches to come talk to them.
“You have to come out with the urgency to put a team away and not give them any life,” coach Nate McMillan said. “You have the opportunity to be more aggressive with the lead and I thought we came out kind of passive.
McMillan got no argument from his players, including George. He finished with 36 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists, but hit just 10-of-28 shots and accepted the blame for the third-quarter demise. He got off only five shots in the period, and missed them all.
“Early on in the third I saw it getting out of hand, but I trust the guys on that floor,” he said. “I watched it kind of unravel. That’s when I should have stepped in and demanded the ball a little more. Get us moving, get us flowing, get everybody in a rhythm once again, get everybody engaged once again. I did a poor job of that to start that third.”
If the Pacers have been predictably poor in comfort zones this season, whether within games or after their best wins, they’ve also been predictably good after their worst losses. They won their last five games to get into the playoffs, a playoff series in itself. Now they are challenged like never before this season, and believe they will respond.
It wouldn’t be surprising if they did, given trends. Besides, the Cavs have proven they can have letdowns in the lap of luxury, too. They did it in Atlanta and they did it in the first half on Thursday, when they brought their 2-0 series lead into the game.
“I believe in my teammates 100 percent,” said C.J. Miles, who started in place of Monta Ellis.
“Guys definitely want to continue to play and definitely believe in what we can do. I’m not going to sit here and tell you’re we’re about to win four games in a row, but I can tell you the next game we’re going to put everything into it. And then we’ll worry about the next game after that.”
A loss on Sunday could reveal a great deal about the fiber of the current team and raise all kinds of questions heading into a long offseason. It figures to be one of the most interesting games of the season, if nothing else.
“Sunday’s game will be a test of our character,” McMillan said. “It just comes down to that. Who will show up and fight to win a game and try to extend this series, which is what I expect to happen. We know what we need to do to give ourselves a chance to win. But it’s not a 24-minute game or 36-minute game, it’s a 48-minute game.
“I expect to come out Sunday and lay it all on the line. It’s do or die for us now.”
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