Playoffs 2017: East First Round -- Cavaliers (2) vs. Pacers (7)

It has become a series of what ifs for Indiana Pacers as they stare down elimination

Pacers frustrated at predicament they are in as they failed to capitalize on opportunities to control battle against the Cavaliers

Lang Whitaker

INDIANAPOLIS — In some alternate universe, the Indiana Pacers showed up for practice on Friday morning at their identical yet replicate Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and everything was different. In this other world, the Pacers came to work this morning sitting on an improbable 2-1 series lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers after a C.J. Miles buzzer-beater at the end of Game 1 found nothing but net, and after the Pacers managed to hang on to a 26-point lead at home last night in Game 3.

That idealized world may exist out there somewhere, but it’s not the reality here in Indianapolis, where the Pacers woke up this morning to find “HISTORIC COLLAPSE” plastered across the front of the Indianapolis Star. And unless Doc Brown zooms in sometime soon with in his flying DeLorean, these Pacers are facing a harsh truth: With the Cavs holding a 3-0 lead in the series, Game 4 on Sunday might be the end of the season for the Indiana Pacers.

“We could be in the driver’s seat in this series,” said Pacers forward Paul George, “and that’s what’s frustrating. We didn’t take care of the opportunities that we’ve had. And we’re paying for it right now.”

Regrets, they’ve got a few. Still, the Pacers showed up this morning with a mood that wasn’t so much disappointed as it was “pissed off,” according to Indiana coach Nate McMillan, “because we allowed that game to get away. We should be. We had control of that game.”

The Pacers played probably their best half of the season last night to open Game 3. They scored 74 points on 57 percent shooting, and registered 17 assists on 25 made baskets. For whatever reason, everything changed in the second half, as the Pacers scored just 40 points and shot 25.5 percent from the field, making just 13 field goals.

“You look at the first half,” said Pacers guard CJ Miles, “you look at the way you played—the energy, the ball movement, getting stops, the things that allowed us to build the lead. And then you can look at the second half and look at how you gave away the lead. So, there’s definitely things you take from it, as far as planning for the next game and what you can and can’t do, and you know what works and you know can help us a lot.”

As long as the Pacers are seeking lessons, there’s a long history of NBA teams having to bounce back following tough playoff defeats, with mixed results going forward for the teams who blew those leads:

• In the first game of the 2012 playoffs, the Clippers mounted a 26-point comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies to win Game 1, 99-98. Despite losing Game 1, the Grizzlies bounced back to win Game 2, 105-98, before losing the series 4-3.

• In Game 3 of the first round of the 2015 Playoffs, The Warriors bounced back from a 20-point fourth quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans deficit to force overtime, eventually winning 123-119. In Game 4, the Warriors won easily, 109-98, eliminating the Pelicans.

• In Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals, the Rockets rallied from a 19-point third quarter deficit to beat the Clippers, 119-107. The Rockets would go on to win Game 7, 113-110, to advance to the Western Conference Finals, where the Warriors would eliminate them.

• Going back a little further, in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Portland Trail Blazers lost a 16-point second half lead to the Los Angeles Lakers, eventually losing the game 89-84. The Lakers went on to win the NBA Finals, 4-2, over the Indiana Pacers.

• In Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics climbed back from down 21 against the New Jersey Nets to win 94-90. The Nets then ran off three wins in a row to go the NBA Finals, where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs.

But the Pacers don’t even have to look all that far back to the future: On April 9, these very same Cleveland Cavaliers blew a 26-point fourth quarter lead against the Atlanta Hawks, eventually losing in overtime, 126-125.

“[The Hawks] did it in one quarter, which I’d never seen before,” noted Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue last night after Game 3. “It took us two quarters, but we got the lead down to 10, they took it back up to 20 again, and we never lost our composure. We stayed with the game plan. LeBron willed us here, he willed us home: 41 [points], 12 [rebounds] and 13 [assists], played the whole second half. That’s what playoff basketball’s all about. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice and lay it on the line to win the game, and that’s what he did for us.”

If there’s any solace for this Pacers team, it’s that they spent most of the last few weeks with their back against the wall, fighting to earn a playoff berth. They managed to win their last five games in order to get into the postseason. Now they’ve got to win or go home.

“It’s a familiar feeling,” said Miles. “I hate to say that, but our guys have responded before.”

Or, as Paul George summed it up: “Play desperate. It’s all we can do.”

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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