The Pacers managed to sneak into the Playoffs on the back of some standout play from their superstar, Paul George, but were unprepared for the occasion and have now been eliminated.
With five games to go in the regular season, the Indiana Pacers were just outside the Playoffs spots in 9th place owning no tie breakers against fellow 8th place contenders – Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.
It was a less than ideal situation and a far cry from the team that had made the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago. Having built their reputation as a premier defensive team who could sucker punch you on offense under erstwhile coach, Frank Vogel, the Pacers have regressed terribly. Following the reshuffle that saw the departure of key components of the team including Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stevenson, Indiana has built a team backed by the firepower of George, the tough interior presence of sophomore, Myles Turner and pinpoint three-point shooting.
With the team undecided about whether it wants a top-to-bottom rebuild or to remain in contention, the once no. 1 ranked Pacers have become a so-and-so team that rebounds the ball very poorly (not surprising with their big men playing so often on the perimeter) and shoots the ball well at the free throw and three-point line. What’s even more baffling is how seldom they shoot the ball from three (no. 27 in 3-point attempts) or get to the line (no. 23 in free throw attempts) despite being one of the most accurate teams from either spot (no. 4 in 3PFG% and no. 2 in FT%).
It didn’t matter though, Paul George switched into Playoff mode a few months early and dragged this very average team into the 7th seed. After averaging just 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists on .440 FG%, .380 3PFG% up until March, Paul found a second gear that was not just enough to get them in the Playoffs, but helped them avoid the projected no. 1 seed Cavs. Following his slump in February when he averaged a paltry 17.8 points, Paul went on a tear and put up 28.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists on .502 FG%, .422 3PFG% for the last two months of the season.
He was even more transcendent in the last 6 games of a tightly contested race to the 8th seed with 32.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.5 assists on .548 FG%, .424 3PFG%. He was more aggressive in forcing the issue, scoring 30 or more points on four occasions including his only 40-point game of the season in an overtime classic against the defending champions.
In an unfortunate twist of fate however (and maybe as penance for their perpetual averageness all season), the Cavs dropped to the 2nd seed and what would have been a favourable pairing against a Celtics side punching above their weight soon became a potential bloodbath against a Cavaliers side that were looking to switch it up a notch in the postseason and assert themselves.
It’s always a fun matchup for fans of basketball whenever Lebron James and Paul George duke it out, unless you’re a Pacers fan of course. For them, it was the forecasting of inevitable doom. Lebron has won 18 straight first round matches and has never lost in the first round of the postseason. There was just a sliver of hope though. The Cavs defense was having a tumultuous season and their most recent encounter had been a five-point overtime thriller. Just maybe, the window was open slightly enough once again for them to squeeze through.
They definitely lived up to the billing, providing thrilling contests that went to the wire but without the ability to close out these tight fixtures, they find themselves facing an uncertain offseason and without a clear plan for the future. This is exactly why they were average all season. Good teams close tight games, great teams don’t let it get close and average teams? Well, average teams sneak into the Playoffs and get swept out just as quickly as they got in (unless you’re the Bulls of course).
The first game of the series was exciting, and dramatic going down to the last shot and ending with a 1-point victory for Lebron and company. However, it wasn’t really that close, at least not by virtue of whatever the Pacers were doing. They allowed the Cavs shoot over 50% from the field including a 60% shooting clinic in the first half. Uncharacteristically, they had the edge on the boards, but that was a blip, an anomaly that marked the lacklustre effort Cleveland made on defense. Cleveland also missed 13 free throws, finishing just 14-27 from the line. With free throw shooting that atrocious and a non-effort on defense, the Cavs kept leaving the window open for the Pacers to capitalize and if the C.J. Miles three at the buzzer had gone in, this article might be distinctly different.
Game two was yet another no-defense, total offense fest, with the Cavs pulling out a 6-point win this time thanks to a more than respectable 87% at the free throw line and narrowly winning the battle on the boards. Both teams shot over 50% from the field and 40% from the perimeter. However, they allowed the Pacers get 9-7 offensive rebounding edge as well as a 46-42 edge in points in the paint. When you allow a team score so frequently in the restricted area, it gets just a little bit harder to pull away but yet it really never felt close. The Cavs had a 3-point lead at the end of the first period that they never relinquished and even had a game high 18-points lead going into the final period.
The conversation around this series has largely revolved around what the Cavs have failed to do rather than whatever challenge the Pacers have provided and rightly so. The team hasn’t stepped up its game from the regular season and have mostly relied on George to keep to keep them competitive – He’s averaging 32.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists on .545 FG%, .412 3PFG% .
PG13 is one of the premier players in the NBA and on any given night capable of making a contest of any matchup but the Pacers are up against the best player in basketball and two All-Stars with supreme offensive talents. It makes no difference if George scores 40 when Indiana’s defense simply cannot stop any of the Big 3 – All three scored at least 25 points in Game 2.
Paul’s comments after Game 2 pretty much summed up why the Pacers failed to make a mark in this series.
“We’re doing a terrible job of getting back and guarding people,” George said. “If we had the answers we’d probably be up in this series right now.”
The defending was unsustainable and entering Game 3, a lot was expected to change on their home floor. They didn’t disappoint and started the game on the right foot, playing physical aggressive defense, getting boards on both sides of the court and making their shots en route a franchise record 74 points at the half and a 25 point deficit. If you’d gone to bed at this point, you’d be forgiven for waking up and asking how many points the Pacers won by. However, Lebron had other plans.
Despite managing to finally hold the Cavaliers under 50% (44.8) from the field, getting an 11-rebound advantage (17-8 offensive), a 30-28 edge in the paint and an 18-12 advantage in points off turnovers, the Pacers still somehow managed to throw away the lead.
They’d held Kyrie and Love to 8-29 shooting including 4-13 from three, forcing Ty Lue to bench his stars for the entire fourth quarter. It would seem as though Indiana had done all the necessary things on defense to win even if they did allow Cleveland catch fire from three-point land (47.7%). The second half became a shootout and suddenly the worst parts of the Pacers came to life simultaneously.
Their offense stalled scoring just 40 points in the second half and shooting 19.2% in the third quarter. This coincided with some sloppy defending on the other end. By the start of the 4th quarter, what had been a 26-point lead had been shaved to seven points. An average offense or defense with top work on the other end of the ball would have been enough to win the game. An average defense plus an average offense was a catastrophe that would blow away even a 40-point lead.
Game 4 was more closely contested as it went down to the wire with the Paces trimming a 12 point lead to just 2 points with 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter. This proved futile as they ended up losing 106 – 102 however.
Despite how good Paul was throughout this series, he needed more help and the Pacers just couldn’t figure out their defending or better yet, fashion an offensive scheme that was reliable and did not rely solely on Paul to create points on most possessions. It’s not the end of the world getting swept by Lebron and crew – it is after all Lebron – but for a series that was decided by a total of 16 points, the Pacers ought to have landed a punch of their own.
Average teams who sneak into the postseason sometimes find just that extra bit of excellence they’ve been lacking all season and this makes for a very well-fought series against whoever they face. Indiana simply couldn’t buy that extra bit of greatness they need and how they come back next season will be very interesting to see.