INDIANAPOLIS—With just over 90 seconds left to play in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Indiana Pacers were clinging to what would be their last chance. The Pacers had previously lost the first three games of the series, and to extend their season—and possibly keep this group together as is presently constructed—the Pacers would have to fight for their lives.
Pacers forward Paul George held the ball at the top of the key, drove right, then crossed over to his left, and fired up a short runner over LeBron James that bounced away. But George’s teammate, Thaddeus Young, was able to sneak around Kevin Love on the baseline and tip in the miss, giving the Pacers a 102-100 lead.
Not even thirty seconds later, James engineered a mismatch against Pacers center Myles Turner. Dribbling on the left wing, James waved away his teammates and took a step backward, as though he was preparing to take off toward the rim. Instead, James took a single left-handed dribble and stepped into a jumper that found nothing but net, giving the Cavs a 103-102 lead. Sixty seconds and three made free throws later, the Cavaliers had a 106-102 win to finish the series.
The Cavaliers will fly home to Cleveland tonight, relishing what could be a week off as they await a winner in the Milwaukee/Toronto series, currently tied 2-2. For the Pacers, whatever happens next isn’t quite so clear.
“Well, we have some guys who are free agents, so…,” said Pacers coach Nate McMillan. “I’m sure [the front office] will get together and talk about what we want to build for the future. And looking back on this season, what we need to add to the team to be able to compete, and compete at a high level, and get out of the first round.”
Just a few years ago, the Pacers seemed to be on the cusp of an NBA Finals appearance. But after back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing to James and the Miami Heat in 2013 and 2014, Pacers president Larry Bird decided to move the franchise in another direction last summer, allowing the team’s longtime coach Frank Vogel to leave when his contract expired. Bird hired McMillan as coach, traded for Atlanta’s All-Star point guard Jeff Teague (an Indianapolis native), and brought in hard-nosed power forward Thaddeus Young and scoring big man Al Jefferson. Alongside All-NBA forward George, guard Monta Ellis and promising center Young, the Pacers had a core that seemed primed to be among the Eastern Conference’s upper echelon.
"It’s really frustrating to continue losing to the same team or same person. It’s real frustrating. It’s what I work hard for in the summers to try and help lead a team along and ultimately, it’s who I am always going to see and face.”
But that future just wasn’t to be, at least not this season. The Pacers were a terrific 29-12 at home in Indianapolis, and a mirror image on the road, finishing just 13-28. With George one year away from free agency, his name was frequently invoked in rumors around the trade deadline, and George publicly said he wanted to play “on a winning team.” The late season addition of fan favorite Lance Stephenson brought “passion” according to McMillan, and the Pacers won their last five games to squeeze into the postseason as a seventh seed in the East. But after four straight L’s against Cleveland, the Pacers find themselves headed home after a first-round exit for a second season in a row.
George finished the campaign averaging a career-high 23.7 points per game, along with 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists. With free agency, still a summer away, George wasn’t ready after Game 4 to think that far ahead—“I am not even at that point yet,” he said.
Teague will be a free agent this summer, and after finishing Game 4 with 15 points and 10 assists, including a critical steal and three-pointer down the stretch, he made clear that he hopes to remain with the Pacers.
“I love Indiana,” Teague said. “You all know me, born and raised, tattoos on my arm. I’ve wanted to play for the Pacers my whole life. It’s a great opportunity for me and I love to be here.”
Whatever the future holds for the Pacers, the hard truth for any team in the Eastern Conference is that for the foreseeable future, any road to the NBA Finals goes through Cleveland, at least as long as LeBron James is there. With Cleveland’s elimination of Indiana, LeBron is now 12-0 all-time in first round playoff series, including winning his last 21 consecutive first-round games.
The Pacers have seen their share of postseason defeats at the swoosh-ed feet of James—between Atlanta and Indiana, Teague alone has lost a dozen consecutive postseason games against James and Cleveland. Indiana now must figure out how to move what seems to be an immovable object.
“It’s really frustrating to continue losing to the same team or same person,” said George. “It’s real frustrating. It’s what I work hard for in the summers to try and help lead a team along and ultimately, it’s who I am always going to see and face.”
But before the Pacers face LeBron again in the postseason, first they must determine what their own identity will be going forward.
“I think we are close,” said McMillan. “As I told the team, I thought this season, we are better than a .500 team, and I thought we played .500 basketball all season long. We did some good things. We can and will be better.”
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