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LeBron’s buzzer-beating game-winner leaves Pacers with familiar what-ifs

Bad stuff tends to happen to the Pacers in close playoff games when LeBron has the ball in his hands with time expiring.

NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When LeBron James knocked down a three-pointer as time expired to seal Game 5 for the Cavaliers, it immediately brought back shades of his game-winning layup against Indiana in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Not only because both nail-biting and inexcusably uninhibited displays of the four-time MVP’s greatness came at the heartbreaking expense of the Pacers when they had the chance to take a series lead, but also because each was in part the product of the sort of defensive breakdowns and head-scratching coaching decisions which forever leave a maddening trail of unanswerable questions.

What if Frank Vogel had left Roy Hibbert in the game?

What if Paul George didn’t botch his coverage?

What if Sam Young had made any attempt whatsoever to slide over and stop the drive?

What if the Pacers had stolen Game 1 in Miami?

Five seasons have come and gone and most of the principle actors along with the setting and colors on the uniforms have changed, but James and the regrettable outcome remain constant.

Tied 95-95 with 3.0 seconds left and LeBron tallying 41 points on 23 shots, the Pacers should’ve known where the ball was going after the timeout and made every attempt to force someone else to beat them.

Instead, they loosely contested the inbounds pass as opposed to sending an extra defender to the player they had been dominated by all night.

After the game, Nate McMillan said Bogdanovic was supposed to help defend LeBron, but he went back to his man once James went towards half-court to prevent an open pass.

Sorry, but a dish from James to Jeff Green, who has shot 22 percent on open field goals and made four shots outside the paint in the series while being used as a convenient hiding place for Indiana’s 22-and-under centers to avoid defending in space, probably should’ve been considered a win.

And, consider this: Bojan Bogdanovic had his back turned to Jeff Green in an attempt to deny LeBron anyway, which means the 6-foot-9 boom-or-bust forward could’ve had a split-second opportunity to get the step on the Croatian sharpshooter and make a mad dash for the rim as soon as he let loose of the ball from outside the sideline.

Granted, since the play developed with Kevin Love hotfooting it to the paint, Green going off script doesn’t seem like a particularly likely scenario.

Nevertheless, if the Pacers concluded that the benefits of attempting to deny the initial entry pass to LeBron far outweighed any potential risk that Green would somehow have enough time to complete the higher-percentage lob (especially since someone from the weak side could’ve bumped him), wouldn’t it have made sense just to have Bogdanovic double the 40-point scorer from the get-go out of the timeout before he ran Thaddeus Young through the screen?

As it was, Kyle Korver’s off-ball pick managed to net the three-time NBA Champion enough separation from Thaddeus Young — who was carrying five fouls — to get the ball, take two dribbles, and launch the game-winner.

“That last shot’s on me,” Young said, after admitting that he got snagged on the screen. “I definitely take that on my shoulders to be able to go out there and guard guys and force them to take tough shots.

“You know, instead of him going left,” Indiana’s glue-guy continued. “I could’ve probably kept him going right. We know that he likes to shoot jumpers going left and step-back jumpers.”

“But, yeah, he made a hell of a shot.”

None of which is to mention that the Pacers had a timeout and a foul to give, and they chose to let LeBron shoot.

“I’ll take that on as far as execution on that last play,” McMillan told reporters at the podium. “We have a timeout to talk about what we see out there and we had a foul to give. We leave here with both of them. Thaddeus had five fouls and was covering LeBron, (a) little hesitant there. We had two things we could’ve used in that situation that we didn’t and we go home with this foul to give and a timeout.”

Left to wonder once again whether they got beat on a crucial end-of-game possession by a superior shot made by a once-in-a-lifetime-type player or themselves, the baggage they carry home for Game 6 will be made heavier by another almost as well as a slew of all-too-familiar what-ifs.