The Indiana Pacers carried over their effort from the regular season and it led to a wire-to-wire victory in Game 1 against the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers. Before tipoff, the “but” in “the Pacers went 3-1 against Cleveland in the regular season, but all games came before the trade deadline” did all the lifting in explaining away any advantage the Pacers might have had.
While that was true on Indiana’s side, it showed to be true on Cleveland’s side as well. The Cavs looked ill-prepared to handle a team bringing the fight to them and before the Cavs could get acclimated to the postseason, they found themselves on the wrong end of a 14-0 run, the Pacers leading 18-4 out of the gate.
In that run the Pacers forced five turnovers, scoring seven including a pair of and-ones from Bojan Bogdanovic.
Bogdanovic scored six of his 15 in the opening quarter on those three point plays, while also coming up with two of his three steals. Bogdanovic was given the unenviable task of playing defense against LeBron James, but James had two turnovers and zero shots for the first 10 minutes of action.
Even when Cleveland snapped the run, the Pacers continued to pile on, jumping ahead by 20 on this massive dunk by Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson would end the quarter on a high note for the Pacers, hitting a corner three, setting up a 33-14 advantage heading into the second quarter. Once there, the Pacers were met with their first signs of resistance from the Cavaliers with James involving himself in all nine of Cleveland’s point in a 9-0 run to cut the lead to 12.
As the Pacers did all night, however, they were there to respond, with Bogdanovic and Stephenson scoring six straight to push the lead back to 17. The Cavs again cut the lead, drawing to within 10, but Indiana was there to respond to every push, leading 55-38 at the break thanks to five quick points from Myles Turner.
Turner’s struggles to close the season were well-documented, but he was unfazed by it tonight, hitting his first shot and scoring 12 points in the first half on 5-7 shooting to help build the lead. Indiana’s run to close the half was carried over into the second half by Turner, forcing Ty Lue and the Cavs to call their first timeout of the third quarter 58 seconds in.
Indiana would take their lead to 23 points out of that timeout thanks to Thaddeus Young blocking James on on end and putting in a hook shot on the other. Cleveland appeared to finally find a groove late in the third, outscoring Indiana on a 13-1 run to bring themselves to within seven.
Darren Collison gave the Pacers a monster response with his lone three of the night to steady the Pacers heading into the fourth. While Collison led the league in three point percentage, the shot itself was far from guaranteed given Collison’s night from the field. He shot just 2-9 and many of his attempts didn’t even look close. Despite that, however, he was engaged and involved in every part of the game, diving for loose balls and leading with six assists.
He’d miss his next attempt to close the third, but Indiana was able to maintain the double figure leading heading into the fourth. Once there, the Pacers were given a heavy dose of Stephenson, with him taking it upon himself the first three possessions of the fourth. He scored three on 1-3 shooting, but the ball movement died and his misses were amplified as the Cavs cut the lead to seven with 10:29 left in the game.
Nate McMillan was quick to pull Stephenson and insert Victor Oladipo on the next timeout, and as has been commonplace all season, Oladipo gave the Pacers a calming effect that allowed them to flip the game, outscoring Cleveland 12-2 in the next three minutes, with Oladipo going 2-2 for five points. Domantas Sabonis was a big part of the run, scoring two and dishing two assists to Bogdanovic and Trevor Booker.
Sabonis did a great job in the fourth of overcoming what had to that point been a rough night. For all the talk of playoff fouls, Sabonis was quickly whistled for three light calls in the first half and picked up his fourth when coming back in the game in the third quarter. He remained involved when he was on the floor, including a big dunk in transition to halt a Cavs run at five.
Cleveland remained within striking distance as the game entered Winning Time down just 12, but Oladipo made it a point to show Cleveland fans who the best player on the floor was that night, scoring five straight with two minutes remaining to sink the dagger through the Cavs, wrapping up an impressive 98-80 victory.
Oladipo was masterful in his first playoff game with the Pacers. He scored 10 of his game high 32 in the fourth to close out the win, doing so on an efficient 11-19 shooting. Oladipo struggled early with the trap near half court, but when the Cavs backed off, Oladipo killed them by holding the ball at the top of the key, backing up, and running towards his defender for a pull-up three they weren’t prepared to defend.
In the game, the Pacers forced 17 Cleveland turnovers, which they used to score 20 points. That included 12 steals led by Oladipo with four, and featuring Bogdanovic and Cory Joseph with three each. Joseph went just 1-5, but his one basket was well-timed, settling the Pacers down with a big corner three that halted a 4-0 James run that had cut the lead to 10.
After the game, Oladipo talked about how this was more business-as-usual than anything in terms of the effort the Pacers showed.
“We’ve been doing this all year, now everybody sees it so it’s kind of shocking to everybody... We’ve been playing our butts off on both ends of the floor all year.” - @VicOladipo#Together pic.twitter.com/tnr5oWmWAr— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) April 15, 2018
That effort was undeniable and no doubt was a shock for many who were watching the Pacers for maybe the first time all season. The fight they showed tonight was the same fight they’ve had for the previous 82 games. It’s that fight that allowed them to top the Cavs 3-1 in the regular season, but there was a sense that maybe that regular season advantage wouldn’t be so pronounced in the postseason when, in theory, everyone is trying.
If that was supposed to be the case, it sure wasn’t. While Indiana scrapped and fought for everything, Cleveland played overwhelmed. James had a triple double, sure, but it wasn’t him at his best. J.R. Smith caught fire with three threes and Kevin Love had 17 rebounds, but neither looked poised to push the Cavs over the top especially with poor outings from Jeff Green and Jordan Clarkson.
In fact, the only Cavalier who looked willing to get down in the dirt with the Pacers was Larry Nance Jr. Nance was one of three double figure scorers with 10 points, but his stretch late in the third in which he forced a steal, drew a foul, and set up Smith to hit his second straight three as the lead began to chip away was the most precarious situation the Pacers found themselves in all night.
The easy way to exit this game is to look at Cleveland having their worst offensive output of the season and expect it to not happen again, but it’s unfair to look at that and not see how uncomfortable the Pacers made the Cavs. Cleveland came into this game looking for something easy, and were surprised to get punched in the mouth. Only Nance appeared to adjust.
Cleveland failed to have that fight tonight, but the Pacers will need to watch for what James will have as this series progresses. Cleveland can’t beat the Pacers if LeBron James steps on the floor playing your typical LeBron James game as he did tonight because Victor Oladipo is going to make sure he’s the best player on the floor. He will beat you, then will tell you he doesn’t care that he beat you because he has to beat you again. If not you, then someone else.
Whether Cleveland is able to adjust to that fight is going to be a big swing for this series moving forward. Sure they’ll hit shots they didn’t hit tonight and good for them if they do, but if they continue trying to play clean, if they continue to get outworked, they’re going to find out that the 58-29 advantage Indiana had in the opening and closing quarters of Game 1 aren’t going to go away.
The Cavs got a wake up call this afternoon, but unfortunately for them, it wasn’t a fluke. They didn’t just accidentally get outworked. Cleveland thought they were stepping into Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs, but didn’t realize the Pacers were just playing Game 83. Oladipo’s play, the team’s effort, the timely playmaking, and the ability to work themselves through tough stretches to close out the win was simply an extension of what they’ve done all year, and that is not going away as this series moves forward.
Game 2 of this series will be Wednesday night on TNT. The Pacers will have an opportunity to take a commanding 2-0 lead heading home if they can win, but even with a split have successfully taken home court advantage in the series.