Toward the end of practice on Saturday, while the players were shooting free throws, Pacers president Larry Bird walked onto the court to show something on his cell phone to Paul George. The two exchanged a few words and a few laughs, then went back to their business.
What could have been so important?
“Ah, man, this girl!” George said when asked later.
He was kidding.
“He showed me a crappie,” George said. “A big crappie that a buddy of his caught.”
Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers will attempt to delay fishing season for a while and avoid allowing their season to become one they want to throw back. Another loss in their Game 4 matchup with Cleveland at Bankers Life Fieldhouse would end their season and leave them with the unwanted distinction of becoming the first team in franchise history to be swept in a seven-game series.
The Pacers have been swept in a three-game series (1981) and in three five-game series (1968, ’90, and ’92), but have yet to suffer four consecutive defeats in the postseason. To avoid that, they’ll have to recapture the energy and execution of their first-half blitz in Game 3 on Thursday, when they scored 74 points and built a lead that peaked at 26 points, and hold on to it for more than 24 minutes.
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“We know what it takes,” said George, who averaged 32.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists over the first three games.
“We had the blueprint. We were on the right page in the first half of what we need to do, but it’s putting 48 minutes together and sustaining that first half all the way through.”
The Pacers were in improved spirits on Saturday, more talkative and upbeat than on Friday when they were still mourning their Game 3 loss. The video review of that game had painfully revealed what they already knew regarding the lapses that caused their collapse, namely the defensive negligence and offensive sluggishness that allowed the Cavs to score 70 points.
Saturday’s session was devoted in part to applying strategic tweaks to counter the adjustments Cleveland had made on Thursday, but strategy likely will be a secondary factor to the intangibles of energy, focus and confidence on Sunday. At this point they’re calling upon pride to save them from being hooked in front of their home fans.
“It would be a huge disappointment to this fan base, huge disappointment to this team, to this organization,” George said. “Especially knowing the circumstances, that we shouldn’t be 0-3. To fold in Game 4 on our home floor, it would be a setback for many things.”
The Pacers had a last-second shot from C.J. Miles that could have won Game 1, made a comeback that put the outcome in Game 2 in doubt until the final minute and had a 25-point halftime lead and a 20-point lead with 4 ½ minutes left in the third quarter in Game 3. They’ve been outscored by just 12 points, total, in the series, which is both glass-half-full admirable and glass-half-empty frustrating.
Add their double-overtime loss in Cleveland on April 2 and it’s obvious why the Pacers believe they can compete with the defending champions. Now they have to find a way to defeat the defending champions, at least this once.
That entails overcoming the whopper named LeBron James, who is averaging 32.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 10.7 assists in the series, and has a 47-7 record in first-round playoff games. The Pacers have already had their seasons ended by James’ teams three times, losing to Miami in 2012, ’13 and ’14.
“Seems like every year he’s in the way,” Lance Stephenson said. “We gonna get him. We gonna get him.”
Stephenson was responding to a question about James’ dominance, didn’t say it in a boastful manner and didn’t specify when, exactly, the Pacers would hurdle a James team. For it to happen on Sunday, though, will require a strong defensive effort.
Coach Nate McMillan said Saturday that begins with defense, specifically staying in front of the ball and forcing the Cavs to shoot over them – and then getting out to contest 3-pointers. It’s easier said than done when James is attacking at warp speed for dunks while also hitting 47 percent of his 3-pointers, though. The Cavs overall have hit 44 percent of their 3-pointers and hit 10 more of them than the Pacers have hit, for 30 handy bonus points.
McMillan draws confidence from the fact his team has been in this situation already this season. Not exactly, but almost. The Pacers had to win their final five regular season games to make the playoffs, and did just that. Now they face another elimination game.
“We responded well,” McMillan said. “We won those games we needed to win. That was like a playoff atmosphere. We know what we need to do.”
“We have to bring it,” Stephenson said. “We’ve got to come out there aggressive, get under them, make everything difficult and take it right to them. No respect.”
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