Its official: the Pacers will play the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row. That also means they face off against Lebron James for the fifth time in the last seven postseasons. It’s tough enough to win a playoff series but to try and beat the players of a team that has won the Eastern Conference seven years in a row may prove to be insurmountable.
But dynasties -- and make no mistake, James himself is a dynasty -- always come to an end when least expected. For Indiana this series is going to be about adding up small victories. Here are the four small victories the Pacers would need in order to have any shot at winning what would be their first playoff series since 2014.
1. Nate McMillan has to be the better coach.
Not a lot has stayed the same between the Pacers and Cavaliers since last year’s matchup. Each team has lost an All-Star and both have introduced multiple new rotation players. The only thing that has really stayed the same -- outside of James, of course -- is the coaches.
McMillan got swept last year but in actuality, it wasn’t as bad as the 0-4 might look on paper. Indiana lost those four games by a total of just 16 points. In game one of four, the Pacers trailed by one point with less than a minute remaining and in game three they had a 25 point lead at halftime.
That game three playoff loss might’ve lingered in McMillan’s mind throughout this season though. He’d leave his starters even in blowouts, much to the chagrin of nearly every Pacer fan.
A great example was earlier this year against the Bucks. Indiana lead Milwaukee by 23 points heading into the fourth quarter. That lead was then cut to 16 points with four minutes left. McMillan brought Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison back into the game in an attempt to cut off the run.
Indiana is the league’s number one team in the clutch with a 17-4 record in games where they either trail or are up by three or fewer points with 30 seconds left in the game. Last season the Pacers were just 12-10. While that can’t be contributed to just McMillan, he’s done a much better job drawing up end-of-game plays. This play against Miami is one of the best things he’s drawn up this season.
2. Stop Lebron James? No...probably more like slow him down.
This season James’ stat line against the Pacers is averaging 29 points per game, 10 assists, eight rebounds on 55 percent shooting and 20 percent from three.
James is having another great season despite being 33 years old and in his 15th season. But the difference between the Pacers’ first three regular-season wins and their one loss against Cleveland was James’ efficiency.
In every Pacer win James took more than 20 shots while still converting on his best 14. Cleveland won when James shot 11-17, his most efficient game against the Pacers this season.
Indiana won’t be able to stop James. Nobody can. But they can slow him. This task will fall on a combination of Young and Lance Stephenson.
The best you can expect from Young as a defender is for him to make more plays like this one against James.
But Stephenson might just be the most important defender in this series because he’s the only one with past success against James. He’s had plenty of failures, but at times a controlled Stephenson has been able to guard James man-to-man better than any other player on the Pacers’ roster.
3. Myles Turner battles Kevin Love.
The best players in this series will be James and Oladipo. But for the Pacers to win Turner is going to have to beat out Kevin Love and be the series’ third-best player.
There are two versions of Turner. The first version shot 53/46/80 percent for 20 games from January to mid-March and the other version has shot 38/25/86 over the past 11 games.
The difference here could depend on whether version one of Turner shows up to play or version two because as of late Love is playing like his hand injury never happened. He’s averaging 16.5 points and 8.8 rebounds on 44/45/86 shooting over his past 11 games.
It’s also going to be about the battle when they’re on the court guarding one another, assuming Love plays center and not power forward. Love is everything Turner wants to be as a stretch center offensively and he has better rebounding. Love is currently averaging just 9.3 rebounds per game this season but he previously averaged 11.1. Turner’s career-high average was the 7.3 rebounds per game that occurred last season.
Turner doesn’t even have to match Love offensively, he just can’t be sucked too far from the rim. The Pacers have been most effective against James when they have a great rim protector -- what was once Roy Hibbert is now Turner, who can make plays like this:
4. What’s considered successful?
This is less of a small victory and more just a plain thought.
The Pacers have exceeded their prospected win total by roughly 16-17 games depending on what Vegas book you look at. They rebuilt their roster without tanking, have an All-Star in Oladipo and maybe two future ones on the roster in Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
Indiana has won a ton of close games in spectacular fashion; if you need proof just check out Caitlin Cooper’s coverage of the Pacers’ best comebacks this season. But a first-round exit sounds pretty disheartening.
If the Pacers got beat in by the Cavaliers in anything less than six games there would be genuine disappointment from both the team and the fans. But is losing in six or seven even considered good or just neutral?
This isn’t rhetorical. It’s a question I can’t answer myself. Give me some insight below.