INDIANAPOLIS – This one, relatively speaking, was the easy one: Home court. A warm-and-fuzzy embrace nearly 18,000 strong. And a clear edge from being the desperate team Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
All those advantages will be gone Sunday when the Indiana Pacers face the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
They will, in fact, be swapped out for several sizable disadvantages: Road court. More than 20,000 fans at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena vehemently and vociferously aligned against them. A level of desperation pushing back from the Cavaliers that will equal or surpass what drove the Pacers to their startling 121-87 dominance in Game 6.
And needless to say, LeBron James, heels planted, determined to win rather than go home. The best player in the league eats close-out and elimination games for breakfast and hasn’t had his season end in April since 2005.
Indiana’s Victor Oladipo was a seventh grader back then. But Friday, he was an All-Star, this season’s presumptive Most Improve Player and the primary reason the Pacers had Cleveland skedaddling home to Ohio in search of answers and a friendlier gym.
Oladipo had a game-high 28 points with 13 rebounds, 10 assists and four steals. It was the first such triple-double in NBA playoff history hitting those totals in all four categories. More than that, it was loud message to the rest of the Pacers of “Get on my back, fellas, we’re going back to Cleveland.”
Oladipo, after scoring 32 and 22 points in the series’ first two games, had sputtered and gasped his way – as a shooter, anyway – to 12-of-50 from the field, averaging just 15.7 points in Games 3, 4 and 5. Near the end Wednesday night in Cleveland, he had a hero moment that backfired badly, his driving layup getting blocked – technically, goaltended without a whistle – by James.
Rather than show up aggrieved 48 hours later, Oladipo showed up aggressive.
“He’s a kid who absorbs what you try to tell him [and] tries to do,” Indiana coach Nate McMillan said. “When teams are double-teaming him [and] we’re telling him to get the ball out – he did that. When he has single coverage, ‘Take your shot. Attack.’ He did that. He’s having to play both sides of the ball, guarding [Kyle] Korver. ... He just continues to come out and show growth and improvement.”
Oladipo scored 10 of his points in the third quarter, when Indiana thumbed its nose at any Cavaliers adjustments by almost instantly pushing a 10-point halftime lead to 15. He was out there for the entire period, going hard to the rim to dunk the ball, lest someone block/goaltend him this time.
By the start of the fourth quarter, the Pacers were up 92-67. And James was done for the night, his time better spent on the bench, saving something for Sunday.
“He got some transition baskets off our turnovers,” James said of Oladipo. “[He was able] to see the ball go through the hoop. Had a couple of dribble-in threes without no one around him. We just can’t have that versus a guy like that.”
When asked about the hard times of the previous three games and, specifically, the jarring end of Game 5, Oladipo said: “You just live and you learn. I learned a lot from that play and that game, and just try to better myself from one day to the next, one game to the next. You get over it – you can’t really go back and change that situation or that game or that play.”
The Pacers’ court leader is clearly calculated and restrained in his remarks, refusing to offer any red meat upon which the Cavs might pounce for inspiration. But Oladipo did lavish some praise on the teammates who have rallied behind him in his first season in Indiana. Together, they overachieved in the regular season and, in forcing Game 7 against the defending East champs, they’ve already done that again this postseason.
“Great men of high character” was how he described Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic and all the rest (yes, presumably even Lance Stephenson).
“Who have been resilient not only on the court but off the court as well,” Oladipo said. “They’re just applying it to the game. All of us, when we get together, can do something special.”
The comments and the situation were in stark contrast to what James and the Cavaliers are experiencing. There’s a distinct sense of “him and them” about their team, understandable given the number of newer, unproven players on Cleveland’s roster and how inconsistent that supporting cast has been in this series.
Pressed into heavier point guard duties with starter George Hill (back) sidelined for the past three games, and despite a nasty cut above his left eye courtesy of Young’s elbow, James with 22 points, five rebounds, seven assists and four turnovers. But he knew the math most foul on this night: 29 points scored by Indiana off Cavs’ turnovers and 35 points yielded to the Pacers’ fast breaks.
James shrugged off a couple of questions about those guys’ readiness and learning curve as playoff performers, then finally engaged deep into his postgame media session.
(Love is) a huge part of our success or our non-success. We try to go to him, we want to go to him. Obviously, we can’t make the shots for him.
“You guys ask me every day, ‘Is there anything you can tell your guys for Game 1? Is there anything you can tell your guys for Game 2? What can you tell your guys for Game 3?’” James said. “It’s the same answer: I mean, just throw the ball up and let’s go out and play.
“It’s the postseason. There’s not much I can give you from my experience. There’s not much people can tell you. You’ve just got to go out and live in the moment.”
Pressed into heavier point guard duties with starter George Hill (back) sidelined for the past three games, and in spite of a nasty cut above his left eye courtesy of Young’s elbow, James also reminded his audience “we’re a newer team than they are, if you look at it. They’ve been here all year. Our team just got put together in late February.”
And when asked about Kevin Love’s struggles – 22-of-68, 32.4 percent, averaging 11.0 points – the Cavaliers star called Love “a huge part of our success or our non-success.” He added: “We try to go to him, we want to go to him. Obviously, we can’t make the shots for him.”
So what James, Oladipo and everybody else said in anticipation of Game 7 likely will prove true. There will be pressure on both sides Sunday.
It just won’t be the same pressure.
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