LeBron James made it very clear, very quickly, that he had no intentions of following in the footsteps of the Portland Trail Blazers and losing the first two games of the first round at home. He got the result he was looking for, but despite his dominant start to Wednesday’s Game 2, the Indiana Pacers sure did make James and the Cleveland Cavaliers sweat it out.
But despite holding a 15-point lead after the first quarter, Indiana worked its way back into the game, having a shot to tie the game at 95 with 27 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
And it wasn’t just any shot: it was a wide-open 3-pointer off the fingertips of their All-Star, guard Victor Oladipo, who came clean as a whistle off a brush screen from Bojan Bogdanovic after Kyle Korver didn’t stick with him off the action …
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) April 19, 2018
… but the look Indy dreamed for didn’t go down, and LeBron pulled in the rebound, forcing a foul that sent him to the line for a pair. He’d put the Cavs up by five, and they wouldn’t look back, finishing off a 100-97 win that got Cleveland on the board and knotted up the best-of-seven series at one game apiece with the scene shifting to Indiana for Game 3 on Friday night.
After the final buzzer, James seemed focused less on notching his 20th 40-point playoff game or his 10th playoff game with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists (he finished with 12 boards, five dimes, two steals and just three turnovers in 40 minutes) than on the circumstances of his team’s escape.
“We got lucky,” he told TNT sideline reporter Allie LaForce. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than [us] being lucky, so we’ve got to do a better job late in games, and not give up a shot like that. That’s easily something he can make.”
Oladipo led the Pacers with 22 points on 9-for-18 shooting to go with six assists (against six turnovers), three assists and two steals. He only played 28 minutes, though, as Pacers head coach Nate McMillan pulled him just 62 seconds into the game after he’d picked up two quick fouls. He’d miss the rest of the opening quarter, during which LeBron dominated to the tune of 20 points — he scored or assisted on 12 of Cleveland’s 14 field goals in the first &mdash to give the Cavs an advantage they’d never relinquish.
The Pacers outscored the Cavs by 11 points in Oladipo’s 28 minutes, and got outscored by 14 in the 20 he sat. He finished with three fouls. Those numbers are probably going to be rattling around McMillan’s head for a while.
Indy started to walk the Cavs down in the third quarter, with Oladipo carving up every version of the Cavs’ coverages — trapping the pick-and-roll, hedge-and-recover, dropping back, you name it — to get all the way to the rim and create openings for his teammates. With Oladipo and Myles Turner making shots, and the Pacers defense helping cool the Cavs’ offense (6-for-16 in the third, as many turnovers as made field goals), Indy was able to get back within seven heading into the final frame.
The Pacers had an opportunity to chop the deficit even further when LeBron took his customary rest to start the fourth. But McMillan, perhaps unwilling to get shake Oladipo out of his usual patterns despite his lengthy layoff early in the game, kept his star on the bench, too, and the chance dissipated when Kevin Love hit a big 3-pointer with 8:51 remaining to keep the lead at seven and force a Pacer timeout. LeBron came back after that, and three minutes later, Indy was back down 10.
The Pacers just kept coming, though, drawing within two possessions after Darren Collison picked up a loose ball after Love deflected an Oladipo pocket pass (suffering a nasty jammed left thumb in the process, from which he wouldn’t return) and hit a driving layup with 3:43 to go. Indy was on the move, giving the fans in the stands at Quicken Loans Arena cause for concern for a second straight home game.
So, naturally, it was time for J.R. Smith to change everything:
Smith hectored Oladipo in the backcourt on an inbounds pass, picked his pocket, got to the rim and put in a layup to put Cleveland back up by seven with 2:59 to play. It was a huge play by the just-returned starter, halting Indy’s momentum and giving the Cavs just a bit more cushion. That steal, and another by Kyle Korver, when he stoned the 6-foot-11 Turner on a post-up and stripped him with 1:15 to go, helped short-circuit the Pacers just enough to keep the Cavs up a couple of possessions entering the final minute.
Even still, the Pacers weren’t done making the Cavs sweat. Point guard Collison, the league’s most accurate 3-point shooter this season, knocked down a pair of triples to get the score to 95-92 with 51 seconds to go, then drew an offensive foul on opposite number (and former Pacer) George Hill to give Indiana the ball back with a chance to tie. McMillan dialed up a perfect play, and Oladipo had a perfect look, but it came up empty, and the Cavs escaped.
The glass-half-empty take: Cleveland needed 46-12-5 in 40 minutes from LeBron to come away with a three-point win at home, and with Love struggling — he’s now 8-for-24 from the field through two games — there’s really not anybody else you implicitly trust to come through with consistent offense on a team that’s not going to reliably beat these Pacers with excellent defense. The flip side: they quieted Indiana down beyond the arc (just 6-for-22 from 3-point range in Game 2 after going 11-for-28 in Game 1) and they may have found a winning unit in the reshuffled starting lineup of LeBron-Love-Smith-Korver-Hill, which outscored Indiana by 21 points in 16 shared minutes. (We’ll see if Love’s left thumb becomes an issue; head coach Tyronn Lue said after the game that Love was fine, and that he’d kept him off the floor only because he liked the flow of the unit he had out there.)
The most important takeaway for the Cavs, though: whether he should have to or not, LeBron can keep doing this against a Pacers team that’s good defensively, but can only hope to slow him down for so long before he gets going. In Game 1, that took a while, and Cleveland never recovered. In Game 2, it was instant, and Cleveland never trailed. Now we wait to see which versions of LeBron and his running buddies turn up in Indianapolis on Friday.
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