Pacers Come Up Short, But Coming On

The Pacers showed as much resolve, chemistry and effort as any team in franchise history this season but ultimately lacked two things in their playoff series with Cleveland: The experience needed to deal with such an "ultimate" game and the means of dealing with the NBA's ultimate player, LeBron James.

They flew back to Indianapolis Sunday evening, their season ended by a 105-101 loss in Game 7 of their first-round series at Quicken Loans Arena. Slightly more poise, a few more rebounds, a couple more shots and, yes, another favorable whistle or two, and they would have flown to Toronto instead, to begin a second-round series with the Raptors on Tuesday.

They have much to be proud of, having surpassed expectations by a wider margin than any team in franchise history during the regular season, but they have much to think about and work on, too. The playoff series proved that.

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

"I wouldn't trade this year for (anything) or the men in that locker room for anyone," Victor Oladipo said in the postgame press conference. "It was an honor to play alongside those gentlemen and I look forward to playing with them next year."

Oladipo, who patched together his fourth superlative performance of the series with 30 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and three steals, will return as the go-to guy and spiritual leader on what figures to be a promising team that should be better for the experience gained from Sunday's game.

Victor Oladipo

That's what it came down to, experience. Well, sure, James, too. He was everything he had to be in this game, with 45 points on 16-of-25 shooting, nine rebounds, seven assists, and four steals. But he also had more help than in any game of the series. Proven help.

Facing the potential embarrassment of playoff elimination on their home court, the Cavs went with their most veteran lineup possible — "the guys who have been in big games before," as James put it in an on-court interview following the game. That meant Tristan Thompson starting at center despite barely playing in the first six games, along with JR Smith and Kevin Love.

All four of them had started on Cleveland's championship team two years ago, and its runner-up team last season. Kyle Korver, an important reserve on last season's Finals team, filled out the starting lineup.

Late Friday night, with Love knocked woozy and James wearing a bandage over his left eye at the end of a 34-point Pacers' victory, the Cavs looked like a team fraying at the edges, on the verge of a major breakup. But then on Sunday afternoon, they looked a lot like the team that won a championship just two years ago.

Players like those weren't afraid of a first-round Game 7 on their home court. The Pacers, meanwhile, needed time to adjust, not only to Thompson's sudden appearance in the starting lineup, but to the moment. They missed their first six shots — five of them 3-pointers — to fall behind 9-2 and were down 14 early in the second period.

They came back, as they nearly always do, taking the lead for nearly a minute late in the third quarter. Escape acts tend not to end as happily in the playoffs as in the regular season, however, as the Pacers proved in each of their four losses in the series. They made comebacks in each one but couldn't finish the job with James in the game. In fact, they couldn't even take advantage when James wasn't in the game on Sunday. He sat out the last minute of the third period and the first 3 1/2 minutes of the fourth because of leg cramps, but the Cavs extended their lead from one point to eight during that stretch.

The Pacers simply didn't make game-winning plays when they had to be made, and the Cavs did. The fourth quarter provided a tidy summary. There was Domantas Sabonis fouling George Hill's 3-point shot at the start of the period, a perplexing habit of the Pacers all season. There was a bogged-down offense coughing up poor shots, such as Lance Stephenson's step-back 3-point attempt and Thaddeus Young's running, awkward off-hand shot in the lane. There was Bojan Bogdanovic, who hit just 1-of-6 3-pointers in the game and struggled more than ever to contain James, fumbling a simple pass on the perimeter with three minutes remaining. There was Darren Collison, who played well with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, missing a wide-open 3-pointer when the Pacers trailed by six points with two minutes left, after Sabonis passed up a layup or dunk to throw him the ball.

Inexperience reigned through those moments.

LeBron James, Bojan Bogdanovic

It seemed the Pacers had the better team heading into this game, but that judgment was based on Thompson and Hill, who had missed the previous three games with a sore back, not being factors. It also was based on James being at least semi-human some of the time, but he wasn't. He scored 46, 32, 44, and 45 points in the Cavs' four victories, hitting 62 percent of his shots. He also led the Cavs in rebounding, assists, and steals in the series.

Sometimes a team simply must tip its collective cap to a great performer. And, sometimes a fan base must appreciate a team even after its eliminated from the playoffs.

The Pacers were essentially a first-year team for the third consecutive season, with seven first-year players on their playoff roster. They won 48 regular season games, at least 15 more than generally expected, and were entertaining throughout for their vigor and vibe. Still, improvements must be made, both individually and with the makeup of the roster, before they're able to handle moments such as those encountered on Sunday.

They have something to build from, at least, which feels different than a year ago when they were swept in the first round by the Cavs. They opened this season with more uncertainty than promise, but have flipped that balance.

"We learned a lot about ourselves and I learned a lot about myself," Oladipo said. "We just have to get better."

Ultimately, that's the bottom line to their season.

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.