The resounding message from Pacers practice at Quicken Loans Arena on Monday afternoon was one of guarded optimism.
The Pacers delivered a decisive first blow in their best-of-seven series with the Cavaliers with <a href="a 98-80 victory in Game 1 on Sunday. The result was all the more stunning when you consider the opposition, led by four-time MVP LeBron James, who had not lost a single first-round playoff game in nearly six years.
But you wouldn't have known it from the Pacers' demeanor as they fielded questions from the media on Monday. Nor would you have known it based on the team's subdued reaction as they exited the largely empty arena — most of the sellout crowd was already on their way home well before the final buzzer sounded — on Sunday and made their way back to the locker room.
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This is the first postseason experience as a unit for this Pacers team, but make no mistake, this is a veteran group. Everyone in the team's regular rotation has played in the playoffs before. They know that a series isn't won or lost in a single game.
Take, for instance, what 30-year-old point guard Darren Collison had to say at Monday's practice.
"We've got to be better," Collison said. "There's some things that we can improve on that I was looking at in the film. We can do better in a lot of different areas. We can't just take Game 1 and say we don't have to (make) any improvements. We can be better."
That's right. The Pacers never trailed in an 18-point road win over the three-time Eastern Conference champions, holding Cleveland to its worst offensive rating of the season, but still see room for improvement.
That talking point is right in line with the message Pacers head coach Nate McMillan has been preaching to his team since training camp.
"Our approach is the same as it's been all season long," McMillan said. "We take it one game at a time and whether we win or we lose, we want to come out and be better than we were in our last game."
Being better won't be easy against a Cavs team that will undoubtedly be playing with desperation in Game 2 on Wednesday night (7:00 PM ET on FOX Sports Indiana and TNT). But that makes it all the more important for Indiana to shore up any deficiencies they saw on film.
For Pacers center Myles Turner, better defensive communication is key. While Turner felt the Pacers "did a pretty good job" with their transition defense, he noted that some lapses in communication resulted in open looks for Cleveland's shooters. For much of the game, James would drive into the lane, draw a crowd of Pacers defenders, then quickly kick the ball back out to an open man.
Fortunately for Indiana, most of those shots didn't fall on Sunday, when the Cavs went just 8-for-34 (23.5 percent) from 3-point range. That trend is unlikely to continue throughout the series, as the Cavaliers posted a .372 3-point percentage during the regular season, the sixth-best mark in the NBA.
Still, it's hard to find any major faults in the Blue & Gold's defensive effort in Game 1, particularly to start the game. The Pacers raced out to an 18-4 lead on Sunday thanks in large part to their suffocating defense, which forced six turnovers in the first seven minutes and held Cleveland to just two field goals over the first 7:48.
"We were pressuring the ball," Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said. "We were into them, making them make tough passes, making them take tough shots. Just making them do stuff that they're normally not used to doing.
"If we bring that this whole series, we'll be excellent."
As Collison noted on Tuesday, a playoff series is akin to "a chess match," and the Cavaliers have the next move.
They could opt to start veteran J.R. Smith — who scored 15 points off the bench on 6-of-11 shooting in Game 1 — at shooting guard in place of Rodney Hood, who appeared timid for much of Sunday's contest.
The Cavs could also turn to Tristan Thompson, who averaged 11 rebounds and shot 52.2 percent from the field in Cleveland's first-round sweep of the Pacers' last season, but has fallen out of the rotation this year due to lackluster production on the court (to say nothing of his well-documented personal strife off of it).
Or perhaps the adjustments they make will simply be in their level of aggression, as Stephenson theorized.
"I think they're going to try to use what we did to them against us," Stephenson said. "They're going to pressure us. They're going to try to attack us, get us in foul trouble. And they're going to hit the open man."
For McMillan, another strong start is of the utmost importance.
"We expected them to come out and establish themselves in last night's game," McMillan said. "I expect the same thing in Wednesday's game.
"We know they're going to be aggressive. This is a talented team. We know what LeBron is capable of doing. I think it's important that we get off to a good start, as we did last night, and not allow them to run us out of the building early."
The Pacers know how difficult it will be to win two games in a row in Cleveland. But they're not shying away from the challenge.
"I think we came out there, we punched them in the mouth that first game," Turner said. "But a team like this can respond and they're going to respond. We've got to be ready for anything they throw our way."
Stephenson Enjoying the Spotlight
The "Lance vs. LeBron" storyline is an old favorite for both the local and national media.
The Pacers' mercurial guard has faced off against the four-time MVP many times over the years (including five of the last seven postseasons). Though James doesn't talk to him on the court, Stephenson has demonstrated a knack for getting under James' skin, with his brash nature and theatrical flair.
Sometimes, Stephenson's antics backfire (like when he made a choke sign at James from the Pacers' bench during the 2012 playoffs). Other times, they go viral (like when he blew in James' ear during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals).
Every now and then, they get the reaction Stephenson wants, like when he drew a technical foul on James in Indiana's <a href="97-95 win over the Cavs on Jan. 12.
There was no signature moment in the Lance & LeBron saga on Sunday, but Stephenson did guard James for significant stretches of Sunday's game. He fouled James twice, making contact to his face on both occasions, each of which brought about a replay review.
Neither review resulted in a flagrant foul, though Stephenson was assessed a technical after the second.
After the game, both players expressed mutual respect for one another.
"That's what LeBron brings out in you," Stephenson said. "He's a tough player and you've got to play your best when you play against him. It's always fun to play against him."
"He's a competitor," James said of Stephenson. "Don't back down from nobody. I definitely don't, as well. It's going to be a good series."
Like maybe no other player in the NBA, Stephenson thrives off a crowd's energy, particularly when he is playing in front of loyal Pacers fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
On Sunday, the hostile atmosphere at Quicken Loans Arena had a similar effect on Stephenson, who had a strong showing off the bench, scoring 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting and grabbing five rebounds in just 17:26.
"The energy last night was amazing," Stephenson said. "Their fans were very into it and this atmosphere — I love playoff atmospheres. It's always fun to play in the playoffs. Everything counts."
Stephenson's signature moment on Sunday actually had nothing to do with James. In the final minute of the first quarter, he caught the ball at the top of the key and drove down the lane, rising up over Cleveland forward Jeff Green for a vicious right-handed dunk that gave Indiana a 30-10 lead.
After the dunk, Stephenson head-butted the padded stanchion, a celebration Pacers fans have seen before but might not have been as familiar to the national audience watching Sunday's game.
In the locker room on Sunday, Stephenson joked he was "so hyped" that he didn't even realize what he was doing until after the head-butt.
At Monday's practice, he offered a little more explanation.
"I'm a little dizzy right now, but I'll be alright," he joked. "Just playing hard. I feel like that dunk set a (message) that we're not playing with y'all, we're going to be in attack mode and do whatever it takes to win.
"Me head-butting the (stanchion), you can't talk to nobody. I really wanted to yell in (Green's) face, but I took it out on that guy right there (gesturing to the stanchion)."
Say this about Lance Stephenson — he makes any series more entertaining.