INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George‘s stone face and somber tone reflected the mood of the Indiana Pacers.
With their season on the brink, they must win – or go home.
Despite pushing defending champion Cleveland to the edge in three straight playoff games, Indiana now finds itself in danger of becoming the first Pacers team to be swept in a best-of-seven series.
“That’s the most frustrating thing, we could at least be up 2-1 and really be in the driver’s seat in this series,” George said one day after Indiana blew a 26-point lead and lost for the third time in six days. “We haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities we’ve had, and we’re paying the price for it right now.”
The Pacers have been outscored by just 12 points, the smallest margin ever for a team down 3-o in a best-of-seven series.
Indiana’s inability to close out games this year dumped the team to the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference and a dreaded series with the defending NBA champions. Last year, the same problem resulted in a first-round exit, courtesy of Toronto.
But those examples pale in comparison to the hard lessons they’ve been getting from LeBron James, who has beaten Indiana in seemingly every way possible this series.
In Game 1, James double-teamed George in the closing seconds, forcing the four-time All-Star to pass the ball. C.J. Miles then missed an open 14-footer for the win.
In Game 2, James helped the Cavs hold on for a six-point win after setting a screen to free Kyrie Irving for an uncontested layup that extended Cleveland’s lead to seven with 29.6 seconds left.
In Game 3, James had a triple-double as he almost single-handedly rallied the Cavs from a 25-point halftime deficit. He scored 28 of his 41 points in the second half as Cleveland completed the largest second-half comeback in playoff history – all while Irving and Kevin Love watched the fourth quarter from the bench.
The reward: A one-day break before James and the Cavs try to deliver a knockout punch.
“We were on point defensively, and offensively we knew exactly what we wanted to do,” James said. “The best way to get offense is to defensively create missed shots. We did a better job contesting shots and getting body on body (in the second half). The first half was not us, but they made us not be us.”
The Cavs are now chasing their seventh straight postseason win, their 11th consecutive first-round win since James’ return. James needs one more victory to become the first player to win 21 consecutive first-round games since the current playoff format began in 1984. He’s tied with three former Los Angeles Lakers – Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
It would be the fourth time in six years that James’ team ended the Pacers’ season. George and Lance Stephenson are the only players who have endured every one of those losses, perhaps none more painful than Thursday’s.
The evidence was on display during Friday’s practice, which was virtually devoid of the laughter and chatter that existed just two days earlier.
“I think they’re pissed off that we allowed that game to get away and we should be,” coach Nate McMIllan said. “We need to learn a lesson from that team. It’s a 48-minute game, and to win we had to come out (of halftime) with even more urgency against that team and we didn’t do that. It wasn’t so much what they did as much as it was what we didn’t do.”
Now the question is how the Pacers will respond to a historic collapse.
No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. But after everything that has happened over the past week, Indiana’s more difficult challenge may be coping with the fact they’ve been so close that they could be leading 2-1 or 3-0 heading into Sunday.
“I’m not a moral victory guy, especially now after three games in a row,” Miles said. “We felt like we could compete against anybody we were matched up with in the playoffs. So it’s not about being close. Nobody’s ever won a ring by being close.”