It’s (maybe?) spring in Indianapolis, which can only mean three things: racing, unpredictable weather, and LeBron James making his annual trek to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the NBA Playoffs.
The Indiana Pacers entered the final night of the regular season locked into the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, but awaited the outcome of a pair of games to see who they would face. The suspense didn’t last long as the Philadelphia 76ers jumped ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks 46-18 after the first quarter, 80-44 at the half.
Suffice to say, the Bucks didn’t quite have a similar comeback in them that the Cleveland Cavaliers did a week earlier, setting up an all too familiar showdown in the first round as the Pacers are set to face the Cavaliers in the first round for the second straight year.
“To be the best, you have to beat the best” fans will be ecstatic to get yet another chance to dethrone the King of the East while fans who would rather not have their postseason lives hinge on the whims of James are going to have lots of self-bargaining to do to find the faith heading into Game 1 this weekend.
The polarizing response is understandable. This will be the fifth time in their last six playoff appearances that the Pacers will run head first into a team led by James. There may be many fond memories of Indiana’s lengthy series against James’s Miami Heat teams, but there was no breakthrough, no feeling of relief to have finally exorcised that demon in the way the franchise did against New York in 1995 as the Pacers lost all three series they played.
That losing streak continued into last season’s playoffs, when a 42-40 Pacers team caught on late to push themselves into the 7th seed against James and the Cavaliers. The games themselves were contested, going down to the wire, but ended the same way every time. It resulted in the first 0-4 sweep in Pacers franchise history.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that this Pacers team is a vast improvement over last year’s in terms of what they bring to every single game. Knowing who they are, and being able to find leadership in Victor Oladipo will be a big shift in matching up with a Cavaliers team that simply isn’t as good as they were a year ago.
Unfortunately, the Pacers currently have no idea how good the Cavaliers are now. The Pacers won the season series 3-1, but every game came before Cleveland dropped a nuclear bomb on the trade deadline, setting up a team that could create problems that weren’t there early in the season.
There will be a lot of different ways to look at this series in the coming days, but the Pacers and their fans know all too well it simply comes down to how they can best counter James. He alone will make the Pacers the biggest underdogs in the East, which will continue the season long narrative of no one believing they can win. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be?