For the Cavaliers, the opening of their postseason title defense came down to survival. For the Pacers? It was a blown opportunity, a scrappy effort wasted thanks to one terrible play run with a one-point deficit, time running out and a chance to knock the defending champs back on their heels.
The Cavs won, 109-108. More accurately, though: The Pacers lost.
On the game’s final possession, interrupted by a timeout call from Indiana coach Nate McMillan following an off-the-ball foul, Indiana star Paul George got the ball above the top of the key, with J.R. Smith defending. The Cavs sent a double-team, with LeBron James sliding out to force the ball out of George’s hands. George had struggled in the second half, but still had 29 points.
The double-team was predictable. McMillan had told his team in the timeout huddle that it was coming. Heck, it was there throughout the game, something the Cleveland defense had been doing to try to slow George’s early onslaught. “We were going to run something for Paul,” McMillan said. “We felt they would try to trap him, and they did.”
But on the floor, the Pacers acted like the trap was some newfangled wrinkle, an alien defensive ploy they’d never seen before. George was alone in a 1-4 set — his teammates lining the baseline — more than 30 feet from the rim, when the double came. That should have sent at least two Pacers out on the wings to relieve George.
Instead, they stayed below the free-throw line. Only C.J. Miles presented himself above the foul line, and he got took a pass from George with four seconds to play. The best he could do was a 20-footer from the left wing with Richard Jefferson in his face.
He missed, and a promising effort from Indiana fell flat. To McMillan, the problem was not the play but the execution. But that leads to the question: Why would an NBA playoff team not be ready to execute properly with 10 seconds to play and a one-point deficit?
“We’re down one with the ball and possession,” McMillan said. “We have to execute our play, make the shot and we didn’t do that. C.J. got a decent look. When teams are double-teaming Paul, the guys with the basketball, you’ve got to make yourself available and knock down shots when they come. I thought we could have done a better job attacking that trap, and getting the ball to the middle. But we got a good look. You’ve got to knock that shot down.”
While Miles is a pretty good midrange shooter, the Pacers should have had a better look than that. The lack of player movement when George was trapped is baffling.
Few gave the Pacers a chance in this series, and maybe Indiana at least showed it can play with the Cavs. The problematic Cleveland defense did not heal itself just because the playoffs were underway — they allowed 49.4 percent shooting to Indiana, a team that ranked15th in offensive efficiency this season.Lance Stephenson provided a big lift, scoring 16 points and finishing as a plus-7 on the night.
The Pacers withstood 72 combined points by the Cleveland Big Three, and had a chance to win. Maybe there is a moral victory in that, but they blew the last play of the game —and an opportunity to put up a real threat to the champs in this series.