Familiarity hit the Indiana Pacers hard to end Game 5 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the second time in this series, LeBron James willed Cleveland to victory, this time hitting the game winning three as time expired to close out a 98-95 victory over the Pacers, putting them up 3-2.
The frustration begins there for the Pacers, who continue to slam the door in their own face with missed opportunities, setting up James to continue to showcasing himself as the best player in the world adding to his highlight reel. Indiana looked their most comfortable in some time in the first half, finally dodging a slow start, and slashing the Cavaliers defense to build a 56-49 halftime advantage.
This all took place while James scored 20 points in the first half on 9-11 shooting, all of his shots coming at the rim. The Pacers were unable to contain him at any point in the first half, which pulled the Cavs closer than they would have otherwise been. Each time the Pacers pushed the game at or close to double figures, James would proceed to close the gap on his own.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, a positive and comfortable first half did not keep the bottom from falling out in the third quarter. The third has been a strong point for Indiana this entire series, but their insatiable ability to lose all focus for detrimental stretches doesn’t appear to be tied to just the opening portions of the game, leading them to be rolled up by a more focused and energized Cavs team.
Indiana had seven first half turnovers, but doubled that in the third quarter alone, allowing Cleveland to outscore the Pacers 31-12 through the first 10 minutes to jump up by 12. James continued to pile on the Pacers in the quarter, scoring 15 points, still attacking, but now with the caveat of getting to the free throw line at will. He shot 9-9 in the quarter on a 15-15 night, challenging the conventional thought that James’s biggest weakness comes at the line.
With the game looking its most bleak for Indiana, a quiet 5-1 run to end the third, capped by a Lance Stephenson three to beat the clock gave the Pacers some life heading into the fourth quarter.
The Pacers trailed by eight heading into the fourth and continued to chip away at it once there. Domantas Sabonis again spelled Myles Turner and his foul trouble well, scoring eight of his 22 in the final quarter. The Pacers cut the lead to four nearing the halfway point on a 9-2 run, but found themselves down by six with 4:38 remaining after a pair of free throws from James.
While James continued to get what he wanted en route to the free throw line, the Pacers defense began to step up after letting Kyle Korver get free for what was his fifth three of the night. When James’s free throws pushed the lead back to six, the Cavs were working on a three minute stretch in which they hadn’t made a field goal.
That ability to get stops continued, but the two most crucial mistakes of the night for the Pacers came on the ensuing plays. Indiana had back-to-back passes sail out of bounds in an attempt to work the ball inside, wasting valuable opportunities in what was becoming a comeback push for Indiana.
Thaddeus Young had four of his 16 as part of a 6-0 run that helped tie the game at 95-95 with 33 seconds remaining. James attempted to drive the basket against Young, attempting to elbow him away multiple times heading to the rim. Young remained strong, forcing James to lose the ball out of bounds with 26 seconds remaining.
Victor Oladipo was called upon for the go-ahead bucket despite shooting 2-14 from the floor on the night. Oladipo was an absolute wreck shooting, but rebounded well and stayed aggressive in the first half. Things weren’t so smooth in terms of extracurricular contributions in the second half, but he was able to work himself to the line, though in the comeback attempt, every miss proved deadly. He shot 7-9 from the line.
On Indiana’s final possession, Oladipo wound the clock down as James switched onto him. Oladipo drove the rim, but James stuck to him, stopping him at the rim and forcing the change of possession with three seconds remaining. The play was ruled a block, but upon a closer look, was a missed goaltending call, as the ball had already tapped the glass before James touched it.
Victor Oladipo on LeBron's block: "It was a goaltend. I mean it's hard to even speak on it. It just sucks."— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) April 26, 2018
Also from Oladipo: “The series ain’t over. You’ve got to win four games for the series to be over, right?” pic.twitter.com/nfob1U913E
Unfortunately for the Pacers, the play was not up for review, keeping the game notched at 95-95 heading into the final possession. On the inbounds, James dribbled, pulled up, and hit the game winner, wrapping up the 98-95 Cavaliers victory, pushing the Pacers to the brink of elimination. It was Cleveland’s first field goal in over seven minutes.
James’s three ultimately made the missed call moot, though it’s hard to know how the final possession would have changed had the basket rightfully counted. In the end, James scored 44 points, again doing just enough to pull the Cavs from the fire and give them a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6.
The Pacers again failed to put together anything remotely resembling a complete game, the third quarter collapse ringing out loudly as a wasted opportunity in an otherwise comfortable victory. The Pacers outscored Cleveland 78-66 in the other three quarters, but Indiana has also won 13 of the 20 quarters in this series, showing how little it matters when they’ve been especially hapless in the quarters they’ve lost.
Unsurprisingly, the Pacers themselves were still upbeat about their prospects, despite being perturbed about the missed call late. No one should know better than this team the number of opportunities they’ve left on the floor in these three losses and just how far James has had to come in order to finish them off.
Average won’t beat LeBron James in the playoffs, but perhaps an average shooting night from Oladipo would. Maybe Darren Collison having a good game can. If Turner can stay out of foul trouble and really capitalize on his unique matchup advantages that could lead to the Pacers shooting better than a paltry 6-20 from three point range, can that put them over the top?
Nate McMillan and the Pacers will have one last mulligan to figure out how to successfully piece together a 48-minute performance as Game 6 looms on Friday in Indianapolis. Despite being down 2-3, the Pacers can still win even despite big nights from James. Are they capable of being focused enough to actually do so though?