America is waking up to a secret: Pacers are really good
CLEVELAND – This is their moment, and the Indiana Pacers are grabbing it in much in the same way they grabbed the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 15: They have it by the neck, two hands squeezing, taking this moment and bending it to their will, making it their own. Just as they did to Cleveland in this 9880 demolition at Quicken Loans Arena. Just as the Pacers have threatened to do to this firstround NBA playoff series, now that they have taken homecourt advantage.
Victor Oladipo outscored LeBron James, Nate McMillan outcoached Tyronn Lue and the Pacers in general thoroughly outworked the Cavaliers in Game 1. And now America has seen our little secret, these blue-collar Indiana Pacers, this team that was left for dead after the offseason Paul George trade and mostly ignored outside of Indiana since then.
But since then? The Pacers won 48 games in the regular season. They beat the Golden State Warriors home and away and did the same to the San Antonio Spurs. They beat the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, Toronto, and won twice at No. 2seeded Boston. And they beat the Cleveland Cavaliers three times in four games. Make that four out of five. “We’ve been playing like this all year,” Oladipo was saying afterward, calm to the point of placidity at the postgame podium after scoring 32 points in 37 minutes. “We’ve been playing hard at both ends all year, but it’s been magnified. Now it’s the playoffs and everyone’s seeing it and it’s kind of shocking to everybody, I guess you could say.”
Not to the Pacers, whose postgame locker room was oddly quiet after the franchise’s biggest postseason victory in four years. No jokes or laughter in here, no loud voices or even loud music, just a trace of gospel music coming from the shower area.
“This is how we expected to play,” said Myles Turner, whose late-season slump gave way to 16 points, eight rebounds and one blocked shot, a wide-open Larry Nance Jr. layup that wasn’t so open after all as Turner swatted it from behind, splattering it against the backboard with 4:06 left and the Cavaliers down 90-78 and thinking comeback.
Instead, Oladipo was scoring at the rim at the other end, then draining a three-pointer, and now the Cavaliers are down 9578 and the crowd is leaving. LeBron himself got a head start for the exits, walking off the court with time still on the clock after his surprisingly listless tripledouble — 24 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists — went for naught.
And LeBron, to his credit, described exactly what happened afterward.
“They came in and they dictated the tempo,” he said of the Pacers. “They were more aggressive. They just played inspired basketball. They were more physical than us at the point of attack, (and) more precise in what they wanted to do.”
This is what the Pacers do. They outwork you, outhustle you. They — is this a word? — out-care you. If the Pacers were merely a hardworking team, they would be adorable. But they are not adorable. They are ferocious, because they combine that hunger with more tal- ent than their roster would suggest. Until Oladipo made it a few months back, the Pacers had zero NBA All-Stars on their roster. But in Turner and Domantas Sabonis and Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic they have a bevy of high-quality NBA players. And in Oladipo, they have a star.
Did the Cavaliers take the Pacers for granted? You be the judge. What you need to know for background is this: Before games, the media are allowed into NBA locker rooms for 30 minutes. I’ve been inside NBA locker rooms for 15 years, usually in the playoffs, and every time — every single time — the largest TV screen in the room is playing video clips of the opposing team.
The Cavaliers weren’t preparing for the Pacers by watching the Pacers. They were watching the Bucks-Celtics.
In the visitors locker room, a space so cramped that the 6-11 Turner had to go into the hall for his regular pregame agility work, the Pacers were watching a replay of one of the Cavaliers’ most recent losses, a 132-130 defeat at Philadelphia on April 6. Also, McMillan was scribbling three defensive goals on the white easel in blue ink.
Opposing field goal percentage under 45 percent.
Opposing 3-point percentage under 35.
PITP (points in the paint) under 40.
After the game, someone — McMillan? — had used a green marker to check off all three goals.
The Pacers outworked the Cavs, outhustled them and — yes indeed, this definitely needs to be a word — out-cared them. In the third quarter the Pacers led by 18 and there was a loose ball on the floor and LeBron was bending over to look at it. Collison was leaving his feet to dive on it, albeit knocking it out of bounds. Next time down the court, LeBron was dribbling in circles when Collison came in from the side and poked the ball away, drawing a foul as LeBron grabbed him in frustration.
This was happening all game. Afterward, it was Cleveland slinking off the court at game’s end, the arena mostly empty.
Here’s a suggestion: Show the Cavaliers film of their firstround opponent. Let the Cavaliers see what it looks like when a team has solid talent and an overwhelming desire to win. Let the Cavaliers see what America saw in Game 1, shocking as it might have been.
Let the Cavaliers see our little secret, these blue-collar Pacers, who care enough and are just good enough to kick your … well, you know. To win this series.
We knew this year’s NBA playoffs could be different.
Several series in the first round could go either way, and we’re seeing that develop after the first weekend of games, with two higher seeds losing the series opener, another high seed requiring overtime and a No. 1 seed having trouble with a No. 8.
The Western Conference is deep. Minnesota was the final team in but finished the regular season one game out of fourth place. The Timberwolves are not a normal eight seed, as James Harden pointed out. They’re similar to an NCAA tournament team that was underseeded.
The playoffs were unusual before they even started — the top three seeds in the Eastern weren’t the oddsmakers’ favorites to win the conference title. That was Cleveland, the fourth seed, which lost Game 1 to fifth-seeded Indiana. Injuries could play a role, too. Although Boston beat Milwaukee in Game 1, the Celtics are without Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis and Gordon Hayward.
A look at three upset possibilities in the first round.
Indiana (5) vs. Cleveland (4)
It’s early, and LeBron James pointed out he’s been down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and won the series, so he’s not going to freak out about losing Game 1 of the first round. And James’ track record in the first round is spotless. He’s never lost a first-round series.
While not in danger yet, it could be if the Cavs keep playing this way.
They were horrible offensively in Game 1, and for starters, they need to make more shots. They’re one of the best offensive teams in the league and scored just 80 points because of poor shooting, including 23.5% on three-pointers.
The Pacers know they can beat the Cavs, too, and not just because of Game 1. Indiana beat Cleveland three of four times during the regular season.
New Orleans (6) vs. Portland (3)
This is not your normal 6 vs. 3 matchup either, with the Pelicans finishing the regular season one game behind the Blazers. The Pelicans took Game 1 on the road against a team that, led by All-Star Damian Lillard, was one of the hottest in the West in the second half of the season.
New Orleans star Anthony Davis gives the Pelicans a great chance. He’s an MVP candidate, one of the most talented players in the league. He had 35 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in Game 1. The Pelicans also have an experienced guard in Rajon Rondo. He had 17 assists.
But the X factor is guard Jrue Holiday, who is tremendously underrated.
He might be the one who can swing the series.
He can guard Lillard on one end and score on the other. Lillard was 6-for-23 in Game 1, and Holiday had 21 points, seven rebounds and two blocks — including one in the final seconds.
Milwaukee (7) vs. Boston (2)
Boston won Game 1 but needed overtime against the Bucks, who have one of the league’s best in Giannis Antetokounmpo (35 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists in the opener).
The Bucks made defensive adjustments in the second half, but they need to limit what main scorers Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris can do (they combined for 107 of Boston’s 113 points in Game 1).
The Bucks also need more offensive production from Jabari Parker and Eric Bledsoe, who scored a total of 11 points on 17 shots in the opener.
Bojan Bogdanovic and the Pacers routed the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoffs.
LeBron James says he’s not worried about his team in its playoff series against Indiana.