Playoffs 2018 East First Round: Cavaliers (4) vs. Pacers (5)

Indiana Pacers let LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers off hook

Pacers unable to contain Cavs' star or execute down the stretch

INDIANAPOLIS – They’re feeling a little better in Oklahoma City, at least, after the Indiana Pacers squandered an opportunity against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference playoff series Sunday night.

Victor Oladipo, who has spent the past seven months making the Thunder look bad for trading him away – along with big man Domantas Sabonis – in the Paul George deal, had a nightmarish shooting night (5-of-20) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That was one of several Pacers failings that thwarted their chance to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and push LeBron James and the rest of the Cavaliers to the brink of elimination.

Oladipo, motivated by the trade and the trash talked nationally about the Pacers’ end of the deal, worked himself all the way to the All-Star Game this season. He’ll likely have the Most Improved Player award on his mantle when the league’s hardware is handed out in a couple months.

But it’s hard to imagine he or his Pacers teammates will have a series victory. Not now. Not after the way they let James and Co. off the hook Sunday.

“I’m a person that learns,” Oladipo said, when asked about his ways of coping with a forgettable offensive performance. He shot 3-of-7 in the first half when Indiana fell behind by 10 points, then missed his first 10 shots of the second half. His last one, a 3-pointer late, mattered not at all in the 104-100 defeat. “I learn from it. I make sure I’m better the next game.”

What he and the Pacers learned the hard way is this: If you come at the King, you best not miss.

With all the reason in the world to play their best game so far in the series – and maybe because of that imperative, turned over a few too many times in their heads until it loomed as pressure – the Pacers didn’t come close.

They had trouble getting out of their own way in the first half. Determined to clean up bad starts in the two previous games, they instead made it three in a row – this makes it 33, 31 and 30 points allowed in the first quarters alone.

Indiana dug itself a hole again double-digits deep by intermission, and didn’t fully make the Cavs pay when they fell prey to their own bad habit of shaky third quarters. The Pacers appeared to have the defending East champions right where they wanted them midway through the fourth after James was whistled for a technical foul (he shoved pest Lance Stephenson to the floor in a move that had to be worth a point to him).

That free throw put Indiana up 92-89 … after which it unraveled completely.

I didn’t think we played the game the right way. There were some quick shots, some ‘heroic’ shots… You’re not going to win if you play the game like that.”

Pacers coach Nate McMillan

The Pacers missed their next three shots, two by Oladipo and one by Cory Joseph, so a lead that might have gone to seven or eight points only got nudged to 93-91. When the Cavaliers methodically went to their most savvy offensive options from there – a couple of Kyle Korver 3-pointers sandwiched around a driving layup from James, then one more rush-and-spin by Cleveland’s dominator – Game 4 got yanked right out from under Indiana.

Just like that, it was 101-95. From there, it was a few more bricks from the Pacers and too much Stephenson sideshow, wrestling Cleveland’s Jeff Green to the floor in yet more antics gone too far.

Indiana had been able to come back from a 17-point deficit in Game 3, but this time left its resiliency wherever it had lost its poise.

Coach Nate McMillan didn’t like what he saw, not early, not late, not in between.

“Similar start in this game as the last two games,” McMillan said. “Not getting stops. Frantic offensively throughout the game. I didn’t think we played the game the right way. There were some quick shots, some ‘heroic’ shots… You’re not going to win if you play the game like that.”

Oladipo had company, what with Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdonovic combining to shoot 9-for-27, including 3-for-13 from the arc. Thaddeus Young grabbed 16 rebounds, but looked to be wearing oven mitts early when he missed three point-blank shots.

The Pacers handed out an arena’s worth of gold towels emblazoned with the word “Together” for fans to wave. But the team itself looked more disjointed and, aside from some solid offensive execution in the third, too willing to settle.

Whether it was overconfidence or just a really bad case of pinch-me nerves trying to put out in the first round a man who gets his mail forwarded to The Finals each June, Indiana has let Cleveland back not just into this series but the postseason.

Every game the Cavs survive and advance is another chance for playoff newbies such as Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. to add a little experience, feel a bit more comfortable. Each of them had his moments Sunday, mostly in the first half.

And let’s not forget how James handled a similar predicament three years ago. Chicago had a chance in the East semifinals to go up 3-1 on the Cavs in Game 4 at United Center. This was a Cleveland team missing Kevin Love after his shoulder dislocation by Boston’s Kelly Olynyk, with Kyrie Irving already limping on his way to a knee fracture.

James vetoed a David Blatt play-call near the end, hit a dagger fadeaway from the left corner to slay the Bulls and, at the end of his back-to-Cleveland season, propelled a rag tag Cavs crew all the way to six games in the Finals.

Any potential parallels, then and now?

“I don’t know. It’s to be seen,” James said. “I mean, 3-1 is a huge deficit and you don’t ever want to go down 3-1 versus anybody, no matter if it’s first round or if you’re fortunate to get to The Finals. It’s just too difficult.”

Going up 3-1 proved to be too hard for the Pacers, who have only themselves to blame.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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