The resiliency of the Indiana Pacers was again on full display, overcoming one of their worst halves of the season to top the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3. Entering the break down 57-40, the Pacers not only played poorly, but looked downright unrecognizable. Of all the things this team was throughout the year, poorly coached and overwhelmed by the moment were not among those, but Indiana made sure to look the part in the first 24 minutes.
The Pacers hung tough in the opening minutes, sitting in a tie game halfway through the first quarter, but turnovers and the Cavaliers role players caught up to them, leading Cleveland to outscore the Pacers 16-5 to close the first. Things didn’t get much better in the second quarter either. The Cavs again capitalized on an overwhelmed Pacers to extend that lead to 17.
Indiana had 10 turnovers in the first half, leading to 11 points for the Cavaliers while surrendering seven offensive rebounds, turning into nine points for Cleveland. The Pacers were slow on loose balls, bad at rotations and help defense, and were turning the ball over in incomprehensible ways, including two in which the ball slipped out of Victor Oladipo’s hands while he was shooting.
Just as the halftime buzzer sounded, however, Oladipo had his legs taken out from under him by Larry Nance Jr. on a three point shot. The officials missed a foul call, sending Oladipo into a rage as he was led back into the locker room. If that didn’t serve as a turning point for the Pacers, it’s a good place to pretend it did, as they came out with five quick points (including an Oladipo three) to force a Cavaliers timeout 90 seconds in.
Thaddeus Young become a big catalyst early in the third by coming up with three offensive rebounds, putting two back as the Pacers outscored Cleveland 13-4 in the first half of the third. The third quarter dragged on, turning into a vintage Frank Vogel grind fest, but the Pacers struggled to close the gap while Cleveland struggled to even score.
Myles Turner closed the quarter with four points, giving Indiana their first points in nearly three minutes at the time, but also breaking through the previously insurmountable eight-point wall twice. When the quarter ended, the Pacers had managed to shave off 11 points from the 17-point deficit, outscoring Cleveland 23-12 in the third.
In the fourth, the Pacers had to keep grinding, as Turner cut the lead to four, and Domantas Sabonis would complete a three point play to make it a one-possession game. Rodney Hood extended the lead to five, but the Cavaliers weren’t ready for what was about to happen to them.
Bojan Bogdanovic hit a three pointer to bring the lead down to two. That was a big shot for the Pacers because they had spent much of the second half to that point trying to get one to fall. The lone bright spot to that point from three point range was Bogdanovic, who had already hit all three of Indiana’s first half three pointers.
Bogdanovic needed to shoot more with the Pacers offense struggling, but a combination of foul trouble and poor passing/hesitant shooting in the first half really limited how much he could contribute offensively, even as he was having a third straight game of focused defense on LeBron James.
Oladipo would score the next four to bring the game to a tie, collapsing the defense on the ensuing possession and finding Bogdanovic wide open for a lead-changing four point play, pushing Indiana ahead by four.
The Pacers would step up defensively on the next play, forcing George Hill into a baseline pass that Young read, creating a turnover and fast break opportunity that found Bogdanovic waiting in the same area for another three.
Indiana had completely flipped the script on the Cavaliers behind his threes, but had still five and a half minutes to maintain the energy and the lead. It wasn’t a surprise that James would be the one to bring the Cavs back, scoring seven straight on his own, including two threes, to tie the game up at 84-84 with 3:25 left.
Bogdanovic would not be deterred, shaking things up with a layup to give the Pacers the lead. After forcing a stop, Bogdanovic decided to give himself a challenge, taking his next three from Hinkle Fieldhouse to push the Pacers back up by five.
Even resetting their seven point lead after a Young layup wasn’t enough to keep the Cavaliers down as James drilled another three and Kevin Love hit one in the corner off an offensive rebound to again cut the lead, putting the Pacers on top 91-90 with under eight seconds left.
Darren Collison would be fouled on the inbounds with five seconds left and split his free throws, missing the second. Cleveland was without timeouts and J.R. Smith ran the ball forward, heaving up a 38-footer that went wide left, securing the hard fought 92-90 victory for the Pacers.
Bogdanovic’s night was huge not only for the obvious 30 points, but in how much the Pacers needed him to put up those numbers while continuing to do a fantastic job of guarding James. James has been held under 30% shooting while being guarded by Bogdanovic, which is remarkable when looking at the matchup itself and just how easy the game has come to James when other Pacers have guarded him.
Bogdanovic was one of just three Pacers to shoot above 50%, which includes a 3-5 night from Sabonis, who continued to struggle overall within the game. Young scored 12 points on 6-10 shooting, coming up with five offensive rebounds and three steals. What Bogdanovic did is also what Oladipo attempted to do. Oladipo scored 18, but did so on just 5-15 shooting, including a 1-8 night from three point range.
Oladipo was quick to take his trademark pull up threes in the second half in an effort to drum up momentum for the team and the fans, but nothing was falling for him. The feeling was mutual for Collison (1-7) and Turner (4-11), who finished a combined 0-6 from three point range. In fact, outside of Oladipo’s three to start the half, Bogdanovic was the only Pacer to find the bottom of the net from distance.
Bogdanovic had seven threes, which ties a Pacers playoff franchise record with Reggie Miller, Paul George, and Chuck Person, doing so in the fewest attempts (nine), hitting four of those in the fourth quarter. It became the eighth comeback of at least 15 points the Pacers have had this season, and no doubt the biggest.
It was not only the eighth such comeback of the year, but it was the second against Cleveland and the first game all season the Cavs have lost when they were leading heading into the fourth quarter. Add in James and this instantly becomes one of the most memorable games in Pacers playoff history.
The win also worked for the Pacers in doing a better job of making sure the Cavs became a one-man show. James scored 15 of Cleveland’s 33 second half points, including 10 straight in the fourth just to keep the game from getting out of hand. This was a big sea change from the first half, where James had just 13 of Cleveland’s 57 first half points.
The Pacers now lead their series with Cleveland 2-1, but outside of Oladipo’s performance in Game 1 and Bogdanovic’s showing tonight, they have yet to show themselves as a full team in a positive light. They’re the only team in the NBA Playoffs to not have yet broken 100 points, which can bode well moving forward if they can find some sort of rhythm, though the defense of both teams has been key in giving them opportunities to win games that could otherwise be lost causes against teams that are in a much better flow.
The series will now move forward to Game 4, also in Indianapolis, as the Pacers will be in position to extend their series lead at home. They’ll need to start better than they did tonight, obviously, but if they can take in the crowd’s energy as they did tonight in the second half, they’ll have a real opportunity to push this series to the brink.