For the fourth straight game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Indiana Pacers had tangible opportunities to win late, but just couldn’t pull through, resulting in their their first seven-game series sweep in franchise history. The loss had many faces, from LeBron James to missed free throws to technical fouls to wasted opportunities late to LeBron James, ending the season in shockingly consistent fashion.
Indiana fell behind by double figures in the third quarter, trailing by 13 in the fourth, but stormed back on a 19-4 run to take a 102-100 lead with 1:31 remaining in the game. Not surprisingly, that would be the last points of the game for the Pacers, who despite getting away with defensive switches for the duration of the run, couldn’t contend with James getting to his spot for a go-ahead three pointer against Myles Turner.
Indiana would turn the ball over on the following possession and fail to secure the rebound after James’s dagger three attempt went awry. That was the 15th offensive rebound of the night for Cleveland, leading to a 15-6 advantage against the Pacers in second chance points, one of many crucial advantages for the Cavaliers in closing out the win.
A 23-10 disadvantage for the Pacers at the free throw line also buried their chances late with Indiana going just 10-17 from the line and picking up two technical fouls out of frustration that gave two extra points to Cleveland. All the while, the Pacers missed numerous fast break opportunities, leading to misses at the rim, turnovers, or LeBron James chase down blocks™. It led to the Pacers losing the fast break battle 5-4.
It didn’t help Indiana’s case that Paul George was off all night. George finished with 15 points on just 5-21 shooting, including a game tying three point attempt at the end with J.R. Smith rushing him. George’s play over the course of the series had been masterful, but in the game where a 30-point outing could have been enough to secure the elusive win, he wasn’t there.
Nate McMillan suggested that George looked “worn down” today, and while he wasn’t as sharp (as evidenced by a pass off the face of Lance Stephenson on a fastbreak), there’s no room for error with him in relation to this team. Kevin Love had just five points on 2-13 shooting, but when James scores 33 and Kyrie Irving is there to follow with 28, there’s not as much weight on having great shooting games every night. That’s where Indiana needs to get themselves in the offseason if they hope to make the leap next season.
That’s not to say there wasn’t help for George tonight, in fact, there were a lot of solid efforts all around for the Pacers in a game where McMillan had his best game in terms of rotations all series. Monta Ellis played just six minutes today, probably six too many after he turned the ball over on his first play in, but McMillan trimmed his spot after his initial run in favor of Glenn Robinson III, who went 3-3 for six points.
Stephenson led the way for the Pacers all game, scoring 22 points with four three pointers before fouling out in the final seconds. Turner also had his best playoff game with career highs in points (20) and rebounds (nine), shooting 8-10, though foul trouble also limited him in the first half. Tristan Thompson also had his way on the glass with seven more offensive boards, finishing with 25 offensive rebounds in just four games, outlining areas in which Turner will need to improve this offseason.
Thaddeus Young and Jeff Teague also finished with double doubles of 13 points, 10 rebounds and 15 points, 10 assists, providing big pick-me-ups for the Pacers throughout the game, and especially late. Teague’s free agency notwithstanding, the Pacers showed they have pieces around George, but whether they can maintain their top talent while upgrading top talent is going to be an incredibly difficult task given the state of the bottom half of the roster.
Simply put, the Pacers should have had wins in this series. But casual execution in an inconsistent season is easily exposed against a team with championship aspirations. The Pacers were outscored by just 16 points across these four games, the closest of any four game sweep in NBA history, but it still makes them the first playoff team to enter the postseason.
All this series did was extrapolate what the Pacers were all season; not good enough and in need of serious overhaul. It should start with the head coaching position, maybe higher, and should result in a team that can claim an identity across 82 games. The fluctuation on what the Pacers were and weren’t all season resulted in an already disappointing 42-40 campaign, but a first round sweep to Cleveland should have never been the outcome, even if you can argue that Cleveland should have never been the second seed in this Eastern Conference. This is simply not an acceptable state for the Indiana Pacers franchise.