CLEVELAND – The doors to the Pacers’ practice swung open and almost instantly, the dispute over who should have taken Indiana’s last shot in Game 1 of the first-round series against Cleveland was settled.
Larry Bird should have taken the last shot.
OK, so Bird might not be the guy you’d look to in such a clutch moment in today’s NBA – he is, after all, 60 years old, retired for about twice as long as he played. But it’s a given that the Boston Celtics’ legend, one of the league’s most cold-blooded marksmen, knows a thing or two about situations such as Indiana faced with 10.6 seconds left, down one point on the Cavaliers’ court.
The ball went to Pacers star Paul George out top and, in the next instant, so did LeBron James, double-teaming George with J.R. Smith to limit his options and cut off his vision. George passed the ball to teammate C.J. Miles on the left wing with about seven seconds to go. Miles got slowed by his man, Richard Jefferson, but re-loaded and put up a jumper from about five feet inside the 3-point arc.
Had it dropped, Miles would have been a hero. The Pacers would be the ones sitting up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series. The Cavaliers’ desire to locate their “A” game would be headed toward desperation. And George would be lauded for his heady and selfless assist, making the “right” basketball play when confronted with not one but two defenders.
Except that George, immediately after the game, said Miles should have given him the ball back. George broke out of Cleveland’s trap and moved toward Miles as the clock ticked past five seconds, but Miles didn’t see him. He already had made his own move with the ball toward the basket.
"I talked to C.J. about that,” George said later, putting a little of the Pacers’ business out in the street. “In situations like that, I've got to get the last shot.”
To George, it was an acceptable sort of selfishness to George the thing NBA stars and team leaders do all the time – or so he and we have been led to believe by the highlight reels of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, James and, yes, Bird.
So, in this instance, the right basketball play was the wrong play? Might as well run it past the resident authority, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations seated in a corner of that practice gym Sunday.
Who should have taken that last shot?
“C.J. Miles,” Bird said.
Case closed then.
And the case truly was closed, because after sleeping on it and viewing video of the play “a couple times,” George agreed that both he and Miles had done the right things.
“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,” George said. “But at the same time, I’ve got to have trust for my teammates. C.J. has been in that position in this season where I needed him to make a big shot. And I’ve kicked it to him and he’s made the big shot.
“I thought he had a good look. A very makeable shot for C.J. But I was selfish in the moment. I wanted that shot in that moment.”
Miles concurred on every point.
“The situation, obviously, you try to get the ball to Paul,” said Miles, in his 12th NBA season though he’ll only turn 30 on Tuesday. “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 [on an inbounds play with 20 seconds left], I tried to get it back to him. The second time, I got the ball, four seconds and counting down, my best read was to make a play.”
The idea of looking back to George then didn’t make sense to Miles.
“Trying to go back to half court or holding it to get it back to him, we wouldn’t have gotten a good shot,” he said. “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 many times. If I get another chance in that situation, I’m gonna be aggressive and ... I’m gonna make that shot.
“I did what I was supposed to do. That’s why I was on the floor.”
Miles wasn’t embarrassed or bothered that George, after the game, had made it sound as if he’d done something wrong.
“He should want the shot. I have no problem with him saying that,” Miles said. “We wanted to get him the shot. There’s no miscommunication about that. But that’s just how the play went down. And I made the read I was supposed to make. Left it a little short.”
Time for some data: Miles was Indiana’s best 3-point shooter this season at 41.3 percent. But on 2-pointers of 16 feet or deeper, he ranked sixth (34.9 percent) among his team’s top nine rotation guys. George’s accuracy rate (48.4) from that distance was considerably better.
But then there was this stat, pumped out by ESPN during Saturday’s later games and recaps: On so-called “go-ahead” shots taken with 20 seconds or less left in games, George is 0-for-15 in his seven seasons.
The Pacers’ All-Star mulled that number, with which he seemed unfamiliar, for a moment.
“I can easily make my next 15,” George said, undeterred. “I’m confident to take that shot regardless of what that stat is. It doesn’t really matter to me. If I get that shot, I’m confident I’ll knock it down.”
But it’s OK to pass, too, if that’s what the defense dictates. That’s what Jordan did when he found John Paxson and Steve Kerr en route to championships. James took outrageous grief back in 2007 for deferring to wide-open Donyell Marshall in a Game 1 playoff loss to Detroit – and wound up taking that Cleveland team to its first Finals.
George, despite expressing some surprise in how the Cavs trapped him Saturday, surely has faced double-teams as his star has risen. And he’ll face them again.
Which gets us back to Bird.
The Celtics’ Hall of Famer recalled a similar moment 32 years ago, when Boston and the Lakers were tied at 105-105 in Game 4 of the 1985 Finals. Everybody in L.A.’s Forum expected Bird to take the final shot of regulation and, sure enough, James Worthy and Magic Johnson dutifully double-teamed him.
Bird sized up the predicament, whipped a pass to an unattended Dennis Johnson and the Boston guard fired a 21-foot shot that swished through at the buzzer.
“And DJ wasn’t that great of a shooter,” Bird recalled Sunday.
Still, given his reputation for late-game heroics and opportunities for same, against so many double-teams he saw in his career, hadn’t Bird ever tried to force the issue and beat that tactic by himself?
“In the regular season,” he said with a cackle.
“Not in the playoffs.”
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