Pacers Adjusting On the Fly, with Passports In Hand

The Pacers left Saturday for a business trip that might cover portions of two days in one city or might go on for six days in two cities. That's what the NBA playoffs are all about: adjusting on the fly.

Should the Pacers lose Game 7 of their first-round series in Cleveland on Sunday they'll return home, frustrated but unashamed of a season that easily surpassed general expectations. If they win, they'll fly on to Toronto to prepare for Game 1 of a second-round series on Tuesday, filled with satisfaction for putting those expectations even farther in the rear-view mirror.

It's just one day and one game at Quicken Loans Arena, but it qualifies as the biggest moment of the careers for most of the players on a team that's still figuring things out as it goes. Expectations have risen as the series has evolved and the Pacers have looked more and more like the better team, so just making the playoffs doesn't seem enough.

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

All along, coach Nate McMillan has said this season is about the front office and him finding out what they have, where they stand, and what they'll need for future seasons. But he's also seeing a team growing before his very eyes, and never looking more adult than in Friday's 34-point victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse when it forced the ultimate game of the series.

"Tomorrow will be another test," McMillan said following Saturday's practice at St. Vincent Center. "I thought they passed the test (Friday) night. All the things we asked them to do and the challenges we threw out to them, they passed that test. Now we're in Game 7. It's the first time for me and this group. We'll see how we respond to that."

The Pacers are 3-5 in the seventh game of a playoff series in their NBA history, 2-5 on the road. This particular matchup, however, offers legitimate optimism for Sunday's game. Their victories have come by 18, 2, and 34 points. Their losses have come by 3, 4, and 3 points. They have won 15 of the 24 quarters through six games and have shot better from the field and 3-point line, accumulated more rebounds, assists, and steals and committed fewer turnovers.

Beyond that, they are younger, healthier, better balanced, deeper, and seemingly more united than Cleveland. Then again, they will not be playing at home and they don't have LeBron James, the series leader in scoring (32.7), rebounding (10.3), assists (7.8), and blocked shots (1.2).

Victor Oladipo

Logic would indicate the Cavs' best hope on Sunday is for James to win the game by himself and treat his teammates like decoys. He scored 46, 32 and 44 points in their three victories, getting to the basket nearly at will. That will be the Pacers' primary challenge on Sunday and was one of the tests that passed on Friday.

They have been throwing multiples defenders at James to give him different looks, starting with Bojan Bogdanovic and continuing with Thaddeus Young, Lance Stephenson, and Trevor Booker. They have tried to make him shoot from the perimeter over outstretched hands and bring help into the foul lane when he drives – a "tight paint" in McMillan's terminology – but still recover to the other 3-point shooters.

Pacers in Game 7

The Pacers are 9-7 all-time in the seventh game of a playoff series — 3-5 in the NBA and 6-2 in the ABA.

They did all of that well on Friday, limiting James to 22 points in a 31-minute appearance shortened by the one-sided nature of the game, and limiting James' teammates to 9-of-32 3-point shooting.

"We are figuring out their different schemes and ways to guard them, and we're making adjustments through the course of games," Young said. "(Assistant coach Dan Burke) is devising a great plan for the defensive side of things and we're going out there and following through."

The Pacers' offense will rely heavily on Victor Oladipo, although not as much for his scoring as his efficiency. Oladipo has scored 32, 18, and 28 points in the Pacers' victories, but 22, 17, and 12 points in their losses. He's hit 51 percent of his field goal attempts in the wins, 30 percent in the losses.

He believes, and McMillan agrees, that it's been mostly a matter of hitting shots some nights and not others. But aggression plays a crucial role in his performances. When he's grabbing rebounds on defense, as he did 12 times on Friday, and initiating a fastbreak, the Cavs can't keep up. When he's attacking the basket as he did on Friday, particularly on two dunk attempts (one of which failed but nobody minded), the Cavs can't stop him.

Nate McMillan

Indirectly, he was the primary reason the Pacers outscored Cleveland 35-12 on fastbreak points and 58-32 in the paint on Friday, an advantage even James seems unlikely to singlehandedly overcome.

"We did a great job of setting our pace," Oladipo said Saturday. "We need to build on that in Game 7."

Much of Game 7's result will come down to poise. Who has it, and who doesn't. James has been in far more pressure-packed situations than this one, but it will be a new experience for many of the players. It also will be new for both of these teams, who were put together this season – in the Cavs case, at the February trade deadline.

Predicting the direction of the game's outcome, and the Pacers' postgame flight plan, is fraught with peril. The Pacers, however, have talked and walked confidently all season, and haven't stopped yet. Nobody is guaranteeing wins or making pronouncements, but this much is clear: they all took their passports to Cleveland, in case they're needed to get into Canada Sunday evening.

"It's going to be like a war zone," Oladipo said. "Looking forward to going to war."

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

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.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.