Lead­ing OFF

Amer­ica is wak­ing up to a se­cret: Pac­ers are re­ally good

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Gregg Doyel Colum­nist The In­di­anapo­lis Star USA TO­DAY Net­work

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.

Un­til Sun­day.

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.

DAVID RICHARD/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Bo­jan Bog­danovic and the Pac­ers routed the Cava­liers in Game 1 of the Eastern Con­fer­ence first-round play­offs.

DAVID RICHARD/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

LeBron James says he’s not wor­ried about his team in its play­off se­ries against In­di­ana.

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