CLEVELAND — A little under 24 hours after their 109-108 Game 1 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the wounds were still fresh for the Pacers. Still, the underdogs from Indiana remained confident in their ability to hang with the defending NBA champions in their best-of-seven first-round series.
The main focus from the media at Sunday’s Pacers practice remained on the final possession of Game 1.
Down one with 20.3 seconds remaining, the Pacers twice put the ball in the hands of All-Star forward Paul George. Both times, the Cavaliers sent a double team George’s way, with LeBron James running to help J.R. Smith on George.
The first time the double team came, George passed to C.J. Miles on the right wing. Miles tried to give the ball back to George, but was fouled by Richard Jefferson with 10.6 seconds left.
Cleveland double-teamed George again off the next inbound, forcing a pass to Miles on the left wing. Miles took two dribbles to get inside the arc, got Jefferson to bite on a shot-fake, and got off an open mid-range jumper that looked good initially but clanked off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
In his postgame press conference on Saturday afternoon, George appeared frustrated that he was not the one taking the decisive jumper.
“I talked to C.J. about it,” George said. “In situations like that, I’ve got to get the last shot.”
But on the practice court at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday, George said that after re-watching how the final play unfolded, he realized that the team executed the closing sequence properly.
“I made the right play, giving it up (against) the double team,” George said. “A lot of me — of course, being the leader of this team — wants the last shot and wants the game to be decided by me.
“But at the same time, I’ve got to have trust in my teammates. C.J.’s been in that position in this season where I’ve needed him to make a big shot and I’ve kicked to him and he’s made that big shot.”
Miles, for his part, was not upset with George’s desire to have the ball in his hands down the stretch.
“He should want the shot,” Miles said. “I have no problem with him saying that. We wanted to get him the shot. There’s no miscommunication with that. But that’s how the play went down.”
Miles added the time left on the clock made it difficult for him to get the ball back to George, so he decided to try to create a shot himself. It was a good look for a good shooter — Miles led the Pacers and was 12th in the NBA during the regular season with a .413 3-point percentage.
“The situation obviously (was) you try to get the ball to Paul,” Mils said. “That was the play. Everybody in the gym knows that, everybody sitting on the couch at home knows that. They double-teamed him. The first time they did it, I had a chance to try to get it back to him. The second time I got the ball, four seconds and counting down, my best read was to try to make a play.
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“I’m one of the best shooters in our league. That’s proven. I’ve been doing it all year. I’ve made that shot millions of times. If I get another chance in that situation, I’m going to be aggressive and get the shot and I’m going to make it next time. In that situation, I did what I supposed to do. That’s why I was on the floor.”
The last shot aside, the Pacers remained confident in their chances of winning a series that no outside experts picked them to win. Saturday’s game was the second time in a little over two weeks that the Blue & Gold nearly won in Cleveland. They took the Cavaliers to double overtime on April 2 before falling, 135-130.
“We knew we could go toe-to-toe with them,” George said. “We challenged them the last time we were here. We knew we had a chance coming in to win a game here. It sucks that we’re down 0-1, but it’s encouraging.”
Still, there was a clear level of disappointment in letting an opportunity to strip away homecourt advantage from the Cavaliers slip away.
“It was tough,” Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said. “We (were) right there, it came down to the last shot. It just shows that we’ve got enough talent to win. We’ve just got to learn from our mistakes, see what we did wrong, and adjust.”
“The plan is not to be right there,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said. “The plan is to win the game.”
Pacers Hoping to Shore Up Defensive Deficiencies
The Pacers’ biggest level of frustration was with their defensive performance, particularly in the first half, when they allowed Cleveland to score 66 points on 61 percent shooting, with the Cavs’ “Big Three” of James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love combining for 44 points.
The Cavaliers particularly caused problems for Indiana in the pick-and-roll, running the set with a number of different combinations to attempt to exploit various matchups. McMillan said that what makes Cleveland’s offense dangerous is their ability to switch parts in that particular set, sometimes having James handle the ball and sometimes having him set the screen.
The Pacers wound up switching on ball screens frequently in Game 1 — a practice they did not typically employ during the regular season. At times, the switching created mismatches that allowed James to post up on a smaller guard or Irving to take a big man off the dribble, but at other times, the unorthodox approach was effective.
“I thought we changed our matchups a little bit around and that tended to work a little bit,” George said. “It slowed them down, it caused some confusion, and they didn’t know where or what matchup they wanted. So I thought that definitely played a little role in the stops we were getting down the stretch.”
McMillan said the keys to defending the Cavaliers are being physical and having proper communication, the latter of which he said has “got to improve” in Game 2. But the most important thing from Indiana’s perspective is to stay in front of James and Irving and not allow them to get to the basket at will, something that happened far too much for McMillan’s liking in the first half.
“That’s the whole game plan…if you can control the ball and keep the ball in front of you, then it should help you defending the paint as well as getting out their 3-point shooters and rebounding the ball because you can get out to your man,” McMillan said.
“But if they’re breaking you down and getting to the paint and forcing the defense to collapse to help weak-side, then it gives them everything.”
Lineup Change Unlikely Despite Stephenson’s Strong Play
While the Pacers struggled defensively, they found plenty of success on the offensive end. George continued his recent torrid play, racking up 28 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but Indiana also got solid contributions from Stephenson off the bench.
Stephenson, who just signed with Indiana on March 30 and only played in six regular season games, looked more like the player who starred at shooting guard on the Pacers teams that reached back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014.
The player nicknamed “Born Ready” certainly seemed ready for the grand stage that is the NBA Playoffs. Stephenson was the team’s second-leading scorer, scoring 16 points on 8-of-13 shooting in just under 27 minutes off the bench. He scored eight points in the fourth and was on the floor down the stretch as Indiana rallied from a double-digit deficit and eventually took a brief lead in the closing minutes.
Stephenson’s strong play had some media members asking McMillan if he would consider starting him in Game 2 in place of veteran shooting guard Monta Ellis, who played well with 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting in Game 1 but was on the floor for just 2:56 in the fourth quarter.
McMillan, however, said he was unlikely to change up the rotation. Indiana reeled off five consecutive wins to close the regular season with Ellis starting and Stephenson coming off the bench.
“Right now, the rotation we have hasn’t hurt us,” McMillan said. “I think it’s been pretty good for us. With Lance coming in, we’re bringing energy off the bench.”
Just as he did before the start of the postseason, Stephenson maintained that he does not care whether he starts or comes off the bench. Given that he was not on an NBA roster three weeks ago, he is grateful just to be in the playoffs in any capacity.
“I’m just here to help the team win and be aggressive,” Stephenson said. “Coming off the bench or whatever the coach wants me to do.”
Robinson Could Return for Game 2
While the starting lineup likely will not change, the Pacers could add another piece to their rotation on Monday night. Third-year swingman Glenn Robinson III was in street clothes on Saturday, but was upgraded to questionable for Game 2 after Sunday’s practice.
Robinson has not played since March 22 due to a strained left calf. The 2017 NBA Slam Dunk champion started 27 games for Indiana earlier in the year, but had moved back to a reserve role in recent weeks. With the addition of Stephenson, it was unclear if there would be a spot for Robinson in the rotation once he got healthy, but McMillan said Sunday that he thought Robinson could provide value in this particular series.
“No question,” McMillan said. “He’s a big guard and we need big guards because they take advantage of small guards. So if Glenn can go, as well as (backup center) Al (Jefferson, who has battled an ankle sprain in recent weeks), we certainly want those guys to get in uniform.”