Through the first two games of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Indiana Pacers round one matchup, the defending champions stood their ground. With the favorites up 2-0 heading into unfamiliar territory, the underdogs had a real shot of getting some momentum back on their side.
One half into Game 3, it looked like that would happen. But then the most unpredictable team in basketball took everyone’s logic and threw it out of the window.
In the first 24 minutes of the contest, the Pacers were absolutely dominant in every single facet. They were out-rebounding, out-assisting and out-shooting Cleveland.
Paul George was dominating as the best player on the floor, with 23 points, nine rebounds, and five assists. Thaddeus Young was extremely efficient with his nine points, seven of which came in the first quarter. As anticipated, Lance Stephenson and Myles Turner were jacked up to play at The Fieldhouse and turned in a superb effort.
Indiana’s team was so fired up that they put up 74 points halfway through the game, which, according to Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett, is only the third time since 2000 that’s happened in the NBA Playoffs. Ironically enough, the Cavs were the one to do it last, one year ago against the Atlanta Hawks.
Defensively, Cleveland was a mess. According to NBA.com, the Pacers took seven open threes and converted on six of them. Once again, the wine and gold’s body language was off. Guys were struggling to make shots and playing individually, and as the story of the year has been for them, it dictated the other side of the floor.
Down by 25 at the break, the deficit seemed to be insurmountable for the Cavs… seemed to be.
Simply put, LeBron James decided enough was enough. Cleveland’s comeback began with the aggressiveness of their leader, and others followed suit. Tristan Thompson began to hit the glass and cut to the basket. He started protecting the paint and locking up George outside of it (0-for-5 in the third). J.R. Smith knocked down a couple of big treys as well. Slowly but surely, the momentum began to shift.
With the pendulum starting to swing back his team’s way, Tyronn Lue made a bold decision. In lieu of playing his other stars that were struggling to get going—Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were a combined 8-for-29 from the field—he decided to ride out the lineup that was working for him. It consisted of James, of course, plus four players in the second unit. Let’s just say Lue’s strategy turned out to be brilliant.
Iman Shumpert pestered George as he did the previous game. Channing Frye and Kyle Korver came to life with four crucial three-balls between the two of them. Deron Williams and the entire team didn’t turn the ball over a single time in the final quarter, or even the second half.
This lineup was ridiculously efficient, especially for the first time they played together in the postseason. According to NBA.com, among five-man playoff units on the court together for a minimum of 10 minutes, the bench bunch plus LeBron ranks second in offensive rating (140.3). In addition, it’s fourth best in net rating (48.8) and the second-highest effective field goal percentage with 68.8 percent.
In trailing by as many as 26 points, the Cavs may have found a deadly weapon as a blessing in disguise. Only one other five-man unit outside of the starters has played that many minutes together in a game (Irving-Shumpert-James-Love-Thompson) and their net rating was doubled by the one used in Thursday’s fourth quarter.
But this all goes without mentioning just how great James was on both ends of the floor. It was a classic LeBron takeover that we’ve seen so many times over the years. Bringing back the defending champions from that kind of hole and winning the ball game to tie the biggest comeback in playoff history is nothing short of legendary. Have your MVP arguments all you want, but this man is still the best in the game today with a win on the line.
Who Wins Game 4?
If the Pacers’ spirits weren’t broken after the first game of their playoffs, they have to be after what happened at The Fieldhouse in Game 3. Indiana delivered an uppercut, but the Cavs came back with a thunderous knockout blow. The script got flipped in a hurry.
With the opposition’s back against the wall, Cleveland has a chance to close this out with authority, and that’s what will happen. After a sub-par night from the other two members of the big three, look out for Irving and Love to take some of the weight off of James’ back with a couple of bounce-back efforts.
The Pacers might have one last gasp in them, but it can’t be sustained over the course of a must-win 48-minute game. Nate McMillan might try to pull out all of the stops, but expect Indiana to be the first team eliminated in the playoffs in a lopsided affair favoring the Cavs.
As for the victors, though, things will not get easier moving forward from this opening round series. With the Milwaukee Bucks taking a commanding 2-1 series lead with an apparently low-spirited Toronto Raptors team, Cleveland will have its hands full, to say the least.
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