With Cavs at Their Best, Pacers Have Little Room for Error

We should start with this: Cleveland is supposed to be better than the Pacers, and supposed to win this playoff series.

That’s been easy to forget, given the way the season ended for both teams. The Cavaliers were just an average team after the All-Star break, and won nine of their final 22 games and none of their last four. The Pacers, an average team throughout the season, won their final five to lift expectations. Even their last loss, a double-overtime thriller in Cleveland, offered hope.

But now the Cavaliers are playing like the defending champions again, a point reiterated by their 117-111 victory on Monday that gave them a 2-0 lead in the opening-round series. That’s bad news for the Pacers, who need to play at their peak level and get some luck along the way to dethrone the Cavaliers.

You can complain about coaching strategy, defensive matchups and shot selection for 48 minutes if you like, but a best-of-seven playoff series usually comes down to raw talent. The Pacers’ challenge is to overcome a team that has the best player in the game today and maybe forever – LeBron James – and two others who could very well wind up in the Naismith Hall of Fame: Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Those three combined for 89 points on Monday, and have scored 71 percent of the Cavs’ points so far in the series. To overcome them, the Pacers will have to get peak level performances from more than three players — including, and especially, Myles Turner. The 21-year-old center has yet to make his presence felt in this series. He managed just six points and five rebounds on Monday, hitting 3-of-10 shots from the field. He’s supposed to be the Pacers’ second-best player, and they simply can’t afford that kind of gap in their production.

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Turner at least is mature enough to know who to blame for his troubles.

“It’s on me,” he said. “I have to slow down and keep my composure. Somebody has to help PG.

“I know what to do out there, I just have to go out and do it.”

Somebody has to help PG. That’s the theme of the series for the Pacers. Paul George is doing his part, playing like an All-Star when All-Stars have to step up, but he’ll need plenty of help to overcome the Cavs’ three-headed monster.

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George followed Saturday’s 29-point performance with an even better one, finishing with 32 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He did a better job of fighting through Cleveland’s double-teams and attacking the basket this time, getting two highlight-reel slam dunks in the first half and setting up Turner’s final two points with a dish for an easy dunk with 3:14 left.

That brought the Pacers within seven points, and inspired a timeout from Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. George’s awkward 15-footer that didn’t draw the hoped-for foul made it a five-point game after the break, hit two foul shots kept it a five-point game on the Pacers’ next possession and his three-pointer with 18.1 seconds left got the Pacers within four.

The final minute, however, emphasized the sort of things that can’t happen if the Pacers are to pull off this upset. They had the ball twice with that five-point deficit, but came up empty both times. George missed on a 3-pointer that was early in the shot clock but also an open look from the team’s best player and reasonable for an underdog in a desperate situation.

The Pacers appeared to get the ball back after two Cleveland misses, but the referees overturned their call upon review. Irving then scored an uncontested layup off an inbound play simply by running off James’ screen.

The Pacers’ last glimmer of hope, following Irving’s two free throws with 17.5 seconds left, vanished with C.J. Miles was called for an offensive foul away from the ball.

There you have it. A couple of unfriendly whistles, a defensive breakdown and a missed three-pointer. The Pacers don’t have the luxury of falling short in those departments. Playing Games 3 and 4 on their homecourt might make the whistles more favorable, and could help shots go down, too. But individual players are going to have to make individual plays, too.

Lance Stephenson played another solid game off the bench with 13 points, but was roasted on defense by Love in the third quarter. Love – five inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Stephenson – scored 10 straight points on Stephenson, ballooning the Cavs’ lead to 19 points. Six of those came from the foul line, four of them after fouls on Stephenson.

McMillan’s strategy of allowing Stephenson to defend Love caused an uproar on social media. McMillan explained it as an attempt to get the ball out of Irving’s hands by putting George on Irving, and Stephenson acknowledged he didn’t execute it as instructed.

“It was my fault,” he said. “I was supposed to front him and get help on the backside, and I just took it upon myself to take him one on one and it didn’t work out. So, next game we’ll figure it out.”

That’s the problem with the Cavs. You have to pick your poison. It’s impossible to shut down James, Irving and Love all at once, you have to hope at least one of them shuts himself down.

Next game, on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers will have to figure out a way to execute their defensive strategies better, avoid slipping into stretches of impatient offense as they did in the third quarter on Monday and get a few homecourt whistles.

But, they have justification for hope. They’ve proven they can score in this series. They’ve taken the Cavs to the final minute of both games so far. One of Cleveland’s starters and primary offensive threats, J.R. Smith, sat out the second half with a pulled hamstring and is questionable.

The Pacers, meanwhile, are getting solid play from a variety of sources. Not just George, but Thad Young, who had 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting and six steals on Monday, and Jeff Teague, who had 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and Miles and Stephenson off the bench.

They’ll need more from Turner, though, to be able to do what they’re not supposed to do.


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