Bogdanovic Has it Both Ways

Where do we start with Bojan Bogdanovic?

On offense, where he scored 30 points and matched a Pacers' franchise playoff record with seven 3-pointers?

Or on defense, where he literally stuck his nose into LeBron James' midsection and battled The Best Player in the World to keep him from single-handedly winning the game for Cleveland, again.

Let's go with defense, because Bogdanovic said he was most proud of that part of his effort when I asked him following the Pacers' 92-90 Drama King special at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday.

Pacers Playoffs presented by Bankers Life, Key Bank, Kroger, and Mtn Dew

"Because everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense," he said. "I don't say that I'm playing great defense, but I'm working hard to make it tough for every player I'm guarding."

Bogdanovic's performance in leading the Pacers to a 2-1 lead in their first-round series with the Cavs was one for the ages, at least the ages of this particular franchise. It was an example of why we like sports, a player rising to the occasion and going well beyond at a critical time.

Imagine the reaction if someone had predicted Bogdanovic would be making crucial defensive contributions in a playoff game when he signed with the Pacers last summer. One rating system had him as the NBA's worst defender at small forward at the time. He was brought in to score, with minimal expectations for defense.

But it's like he said early in the season, when he began to establish himself as at least a non-horrible defender: He had never been asked to do it. And now he has been.
Just goes to show, you get what you ask for.

James, who scored 46 points to lead Cleveland's Game 2 victory on Wednesday, finished with 28 on 10-of-22 shooting, 12 rebounds and eight assists. But as he said himself, he also had six turnovers, and hit just 1-of-6 shots in the third quarter when the Pacers whittled the Cavs' 17-point halftime lead to six.

Bogdanovic didn't shut down James and didn't say he did. But he made James work for everything by getting wide and low into a defensive stance and doing his best to stay in front of him.

Several times, Bogdanovic crouched and leaned his head into James' waist to try to keep him off-balance.

"Just trying to get into his knees, to push him to catch the ball farther from the basket," Bogdanovic said. "Against those kind of players, you can't do anything, just try to stay aggressive on them."

Bojan Bogdanovic

Well, you can do something. James was forced into a playmaking role on several occasions, and his support staff didn't come through. The non-James portion of the Cavs hit just 8-of-26 shots in the second half, including 2-of-16 3-pointers.

In other words, look for LeBron to try to score 40, if not 50, on Sunday. It appears to be the only way Cleveland can win.

Bogdanovic wasn't exactly the likeliest suspect to go off offensively, either. He had averaged 11.5 points on 35 percent shooting over the first two games of the series, hitting 2-of-9 3-pointers, and this one didn't get off to a promising start. He was called for a foul just 11 seconds after tipoff when he got wrapped up with James away from the ball, and then another 2 1/2 minutes into the game when George Hill leaned into him on a driving layup and got the call.

Both calls were questionable, especially the second one, but the end result was the same. Bogdanovic went to the bench.

"I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but the second half I started hitting shots and I started feeling very better and I think I did a great job tonight."

That's not Bogdanovic being arrogant, that's Bogdanovic speaking his third language, after Croatian and Spanish. But he did do a great job after returning to the game. He had 11 of the Pacers' 40 points at halftime, then added 19 in a second-half splurge. He hit two driving layups in the third period, his only shot attempts, then unloaded in the fourth by hitting all four 3-pointers and scoring 15 points.

Three of those 3-pointers came off assists from Victor Oladipo, the end result of Cleveland's double-teaming tactic of the Pacers' primary threat.

"I knew that I had to stick with my shots," Bogdanovic said. "They are trying to get the ball away from Victor so we did a good job today adjusting to those double-teams."

The first three, with 9:03 left, brought the Pacers within two points. The second, from 29 feet, drew a foul from Kyle Korver and led to a four-point play that gave the Pacers a four-point lead. The third came off Thaddeus Young's third steal of the game and pushed the lead to seven, the Pacers largest lead of the game, with 5:41 left.

That one brought a Cavs' timeout, two fist pumps and screams from the normally reserved Bogdanovic, and a herd of teammates rushing onto the court to greet him.

Bogdanovic added a crucial layup off a drive and head fake after Oladipo nearly fell down on the perimeter and barely got the ball to him, and then, on the next possession, a 3-pointer from 31 feet that pushed the lead back to five with 2:26 remaining.

Bojan Bogdanovic, Myles Turner

"Incredible," Oladipo said. "He did an incredible job for us on both ends of the floor. When he's playing like that it opens it up for everybody."

Friday happened to be the one-year anniversary of Game 3 of last season's playoff series with Cleveland, when the Cavs overcame a 26-point second-half deficit for a five-point victory. That made the Pacers' comeback from a mere 17 points seem pedestrian by comparison, but it was enough to keep the sellout audience at The Fieldhouse rocking.

A lot has changed in the past year. James has a lesser set of teammates while the Pacers have a revamped roster with an improved chemistry and mindset. Bogdanovic, surprisingly, has become a major element of that. He had a couple of extended slumps during the season, and just last month went a combined 2-of-21 from the field in consecutive games, but his coach never lost faith.

The reward for that came on Friday.

"He went through a stretch where his shot wasn't falling, and lot of people were questioning what was going on with him," Nate McMillan said.

"We're going to stick with our guys. We don't have a lot of options to make drastic changes. We're confident that his next shot is going to go in. And he continues to improve at the defensive end of the floor."

Not what you were expecting last summer, is it? Bojan Bogdanovic, a two-way player, leading a playoff victory over James' Cavaliers. It was enough to earn a perfect score in one teammate's grading system.

"I give him a 100 on the test," Lance Stephenson said. "He did a good job on LeBron, he hit open shots, he attacked. We've seen he can do that throughout the season. But for him to do this in the playoffs is amazing."

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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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