Victor Oladipo was smiling. He had just missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game, a 3-pointer that would have completed an incredible comeback after a disastrous first quarter, and he was smiling as he headed toward the bench for a timeout.
It wasn't difficult to read his mind. It wasn't the smile of someone who doesn't care, it was the smile of someone who was surprised he had failed and doesn't expect to fail next time — which is just one of the positive impressions to be taken from the Pacers' 100-97 loss to Cleveland on Wednesday.
As playoff losses go, the Pacers have had far worse. That's not a view through rose-colored binoculars or a phoned-in analysis from Pollyanna, it's an objective impression of the best team in their first-round playoff series, which happens to be them.
The Pacers withstood 46 points from LeBron James, two questionable foul calls on Oladipo that sent him to the bench 62 seconds into the game, first-quarter deficits of 13-0 and 26-8, and 27 percent 3-point shooting for the game and still had a shot from their best player with 27.5 seconds left that could have tied the score.
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More than ever, they should be convinced they are the better team in this series, and their postgame locker room comments reflected that. The Cavs have the most powerful weapon, but not nearly as many as the Pacers. James is accustomed to having another certain Hall of Famer to share the burden — Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, or Kyrie Irving — but he doesn't have that luxury now. Cleveland's second-best player, Kevin Love, isn't what he used to be, and suffered a jammed left thumb at the end of his 5-of-16 shooting performance late in Wednesday's game.
Maybe that's why Oladipo was smiling all over again while discussing his missed 3-pointer when he met with the media afterward.
"I just missed," he said. "Literally, I just missed."
Oladipo chuckled while saying that, and then added: "If I have that look again, I'll take it every time."
Historical trends were aligned against the Pacers in this game, at least the trends of their own history. The last four times they have won Game 1 of a playoff series on the road, as they did on Sunday by 18 points, they lost Game 2. Lost it badly, in fact. By 19 points to Toronto in 2016. By 15 points to New Jersey in 2006. By 16 points to New Jersey in 2002. By 18 points to Philadelphia in 2001.
And remember Game 1 of their series with New York in Madison Square Garden in 1995, when Reggie Miller scored those eight points in 8.9 seconds to lead a two-point victory? They lost Game 2 by 19 points.
Teams are fighting both the odds and human nature when they try to win for a second consecutive time on the home court of an opponent that was better than them during the regular season. They know in the back of their collective minds they've already done their job by stealing homecourt advantage. Nobody's going to be mad at them for losing Game 2, and satisfaction becomes their greatest obstacle.
The Pacers also were fighting their own worst tendencies. They made a habit of slow starts throughout the season, comfortable in their confidence to come back from major deficits. They usually did, too, especially at home amid delirious fans.
This time that bad habit proved costly. Sure, they stuck together and chipped away at their 18-point deficit, but never quite caught up. They got within seven points midway through the second quarter, trailed by 12 at the half, were down 16 early in the third period, got within five later, fell back by 12, and then got within four points five times in the fourth quarter.
Knocking, knocking, but never quite breaking in.
They got within three points on Darren Collison's 3-pointer with 51.2 seconds remaining, and got the ball back after George Hill's offensive foul. Following a Pacers timeout, a play was designed for Oladipo. But he missed.
Which brings up yet another trend that continued on Wednesday: the necessity of Oladipo turning in his regular workload. He played just 28 minutes because of his early foul trouble. That was enough time to score 22 points and pass out six assists, but the disjointed beginning seemed to affect his rhythm throughout the game. He hit just 2-of-8 3-pointers and had six turnovers, including a crucial one when J.R. Smith stripped him in the backcourt and converted a layup to give the Cavs a seven-point lead with three minutes remaining.
Still, the Pacers outscored Cleveland by 11 points when he was in the game. None of the other starters had a positive plus-minus outcome. That only accentuated what we all learned during the regular season when the Pacers were 0-7 when Oladipo missed games. The Pacers are really good with him and not very good without him, simple as that. Had he been able to play 10 more minutes on Wednesday, as he was scheduled to before the whistles blew, the Pacers likely would be up 2-0 in the series.
Oladipo tried to rally his teammates in his absence.
"Vic was like, 'Hey, man, we're good, you don't need me out there!'" Myles Turner said afterward. "He was really riling us up. When your best player, your team leader shows that much confidence in his teammates, it's huge for us."
But not nearly as huge as Oladipo actually playing.
"He can help us on the floor, not sitting over there next to me," coach Nate McMillan said.
Oladipo likely will clock more minutes when the series resumes at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. James likely won't score 46 points, and his teammates are no more likely to step up with significant contributions than in the first two games.
The Pacers are hardly home-free, though. One loss at The Fieldhouse returns the momentum to Cleveland, and no player in the NBA is more likely to win a game by himself than James. But they have plenty of reasons to smile. Afterward, rather than lamenting their loss, they were looking forward to playing again.
"We were just talking about it." Collison told reporters. "We can't wait until we play Friday."
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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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