CLEVELAND – If you think the Indiana Pacers showed up to face the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday at Quicken Loans Arena only because the NBA told them they had to, you haven’t been watching the Pacers much this season.
If you think their 98-80 victory in Game 1 of the teams’ first-round Eastern Conference series was one of those “plucky underdog steals one from blasé favorite” flukes, you weren’t paying close attention to what played out over 48 minutes on Cleveland’s home court.
The Pacers might have had a little surprise and opponent overconfidence on their side, but mostly they took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series because they outplayed the defending East champs.
They limited the Cavaliers to 80 points and 8-of-34 3-point shooting. They dictated the pace, controlled the ball and led 25-8 late in the first quarter and 33-14 when it ended.
The Pacers stymied a couple Cleveland players with their defensive matchups (notably sticking big man Myles Turner on Jeff Green), exploited the playoff inexperience of some of the Cavs’ newcomers and created points by creating turnovers (12 steals). They did not panic when LeBron James and his crew revved up in each of the final three quarters. And the Pacers saw to it that their star, Victor Oladipo, got the opportunities to play like one.
Bottom line, they out-X’d and out-O’d the Cavaliers, which is why Indiana might be in line for something bigger over the next 10 days than pats on the head.
“We’ve been playing like this all year,” Oladipo said, as deadpan after the victory as he was demonstrative during it. “Been playing hard at both ends all year. It’s just that it hasn’t been magnified. It’s the playoffs now ... so everybody sees it. So, it’s like, it’s kind of shocking to everybody.”
Oladipo scored 32 points on 11-of-19 shooting, 6-of-9 from the arc, and added six rebounds, four assists and four steals. He turned a flurry of personal slights last summer – media, fans and folks within the NBA (including Cavs owner Dan Gilbert) openly criticized Indiana for trading All-Star Paul George to OKC for “only” Oladipo and big man Domantas Sabonis – into motivation that got him to All-Star Weekend and a likely Most Improved Player award.
Oladipo wasn’t about to take a step back Sunday and, same as during the first 82 games, neither were his teammates. Sized up as a lottery team last fall, they got to the postseason as the East’s No. 5 seed and apologized to no one after ending James’ streak of 21 consecutive first-round victories.
“We’re fully aware of LeBron, we’re fully aware of this team,” Oladipo said. “And we realize it’s not going to be easy. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to come in here and just fold.
“We’re planning on winning. That’s why we came to this series, that’s why we came to play this game – to win. Not just come in here and be OK.”
Chances are good that, if you hacked into Indiana’s scouting reports, you’d find a game plan that looks remarkably like the video James, coach Tyronn Lue and the rest of the Cavs will be breaking down before Wednesday’s Game 2. Much of what the Pacers wanted to do, they did. And most of what they did worked.
Assigning Bojan Bogdanovic to guard James, particularly early, kept the Cavs star off stride just enough while he shouldered responsibility for setting up his teammates. Turner on Green meant Kevin Love had to cope with more mobile Thaddeus Young.
Cleveland’s George Hill got blind-sided on a pick by Pacers reserve Trevor Booker in the first half, then his back stiffened up. Hill only lasted a few minutes in the third quarter. That put James at point guard even longer, keeping him out of the post where he looked capable of doing more damage, while limiting his downhill assaults on the rim.
But the Pacers avoided backpedaling frantically in transition by controlling the ball and keeping the floor balanced, and they were good generally at stopping the ball so James couldn’t collapse their defense for easy kick-outs. Not every one of Cleveland’s 26 missed 3-pointer was hotly contested but few were wide-open looks either.
“They came in and they dictated the tempo,” said James, who got a triple-double with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists but was a minus-13 in his 44 minutes.
“They were more aggressive. They just played inspired basketball. ... They were more physical than us at the point of attack. They were more precise in what they wanted to do. And we couldn’t score the ball.”
James was anything but flummoxed (“I’m down 0-1 in the first round. I was down 3-1 in the Finals”). He and Lue mentioned the newbies, guys like Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. who were acquired at the trade deadline. Nothing in their NBA careers to date had prepared them for quite this stage or intensity, but now they’ve sampled it.
“Listen, experience is the best teacher,” James said, “and they got it today.”
Yet the Pacers’ roster is full of younger, inexperienced players too. They handled Game 1 just fine. When the Cavaliers twice got within seven points and goosed the home crowd – late in the third and early in the fourth – Indiana carefully plugged its leaks and built back its lead.
“We’ve got 10 new players,” coach Nate McMillan said. “They kept pretty calm and poised throughout the season. This is something we conditioned ourselves for – we talk about being calm, clear and connected every single night.
“[When] you’re in postseason basketball, you’re going up against a player like LeBron and all the things he’s done, it’s going to be emotional. You’re on their home court. You’re going to have to show that calmness. You’re going to have to be clear about what you need to do, and connected out there.”
Said reserve guard Cory Joseph: “We don’t feel like the underdog. That’s what the media and those guys say. But we don’t worry about that. We know we’re a good team and we can stay tight. We stay together and play hard.
“At the end of the day, every good team it comes down to, especially in the playoffs, execution, defense, the details.”
Indiana didn’t just play like a good team in taking the opener. It is a good team.
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