The season is over for the Indiana Pacers after suffering another tough loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers got to Game 7, but couldn’t get any further, a familiar combination of missed opportunities and LeBron James being LeBron James proving just enough to keep them out of the second round.
The Pacers had every claim to being the better team throughout this series, so it was almost fitting that they simply weren’t in Game 7. Tyronn Lue shifted the game in Cleveland’s favor by opting to start Tristan Thompson, moving Kevin Love to the power forward position, and finding the perfect time to get George Hill back in the action.
The Cavs had a series high five players in double figures, tipping the game in Cleveland’s favor behind James’s 45 points, while the Pacers couldn’t find reliable contributions outside of Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison. Even their contributions were opposite the other with Collison carrying the load in the first and Oladipo scoring big in the second.
Cleveland came out the hungrier team to start the game, building a 12-point lead after one and reestablishing themselves in the second to lead by double figures. The Pacers struggled with rebounding, giving up 12 offensive rebounds to Cleveland, leading to eight second chance points.
They also failed to create turnovers, allowing the Cavs to play clean until the final minute of the second quarter. That lone turnover resulted in no points for the Pacers, who also had just two fast break points the entire half. The difference throughout the series had come down to the Cavs’ ability to make Indiana uncomfortable and that was on full display in the first half.
However, despite their bad stretches at times, this Pacers team has never quit, never gone away, and they weren’t going to allow that to happen in Game 7. They got back to their modes of success in the third quarter, forcing turnovers, getting out and running, and going ahead 61-58 on an 18-4 run to start the quarter.
James and the Cavs responded, putting them back up three with a minute left. James to that point had played the entire game with the purpose of playing the rest of it. However, James would exit to the locker room to deal with some cramping issues. In what should have been a wide open door for the Pacers to seize control of the game worked instead in the favor of the Cavs heading into the fourth.
Oladipo and the starters left when James did, and Pacers saw something they couldn’t have possibly expected: aggressive George Hill. Hill caught Domantas Sabonis on a three shot foul as the Pacers shot 0-4 in the two minutes Oladipo and the starters sat, allowing the Cavs to take the momentum on a 5-0 run.
Another 5-0 run after a Sabonis dunk found the Pacers down 10 with James coming back in the game. The lead would balloon to 12 behind Love and Hill’s play, giving the Pacers a huge deficit to overcome in just six minutes. Myles Turner had struggled early against Thompson again allowing foul trouble to limit his time on the floor, but he was big in the fourth to help get the Pacers back in the action.
Turner had six in the fourth to bring the Pacers within seven and was ready to bring them even closer before getting whistled for his sixth foul against J.R. Smith, with Smith whipping himself back as both players battled for the rebound. Turner had completed a putback on the offensive rebound, but instead, sent Smith to the line, who extended the lead back to nine.
Indiana would continue to chip away despite that, getting stops to pull themselves to within four with 50 seconds left, but got there despite a pair of turnovers, wide open misses, and fouls giving Cleveland trips to the free throw line. This missed threes proved costly, they missed five straight in the final two minutes, any of them going having a chance of changing the complexion of the game.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, they were unable to hit the shots necessary to complete the comeback, even as the Cavs went 3-6 from the line down the stretch. What it all meant after Oladipo hit a three to end the game was a 105-101 loss, wrapping up a Game 7 and their 2017-18 season.
Indiana’s deficits in the first half flipped in their favor after the break, including 13 points off turnovers and 12 fast break points while limiting the Cavs to just three offensive rebounds. All of that contributed to them working back in the game and having a chance late, but the slow start again proved too much to overcome especially when they were unable to capitalize on the key stretch early in the fourth in part due to Nate McMillan sticking with his regular rotation.
Oladipo finished with 30 points and 12 rebounds, with six assists and three steals. He led the charge from deep with four threes, but struggled at the line at just 6-9. The missed free throws have been a problem for not only Oladipo, but the team as a whole, but especially so today when the Pacers were outscored 31-19 from the line, the Pacers getting outshot 40-24 overall.
Collison had 23 points, doing the heavy lifting in the first half with 17. He shot 9-13 from the floor, but just 1-4 from three point range, missing his only attempt in the second half. He also had just two assists on a game when the Pacers as a team had just 15. Ball movement had been a hallmark of success for Indiana all season, but it did not come to fruition in Game 7.
The only other starter in double figures was Thaddeus Young with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Young had five offensive rebounds, a team high, leading to seven second chance points, though he was hampered with some misses at the rim. Beyond that, there wasn’t much contribution to speak of.
Sabonis was the only other Pacer in double figures with 10, but was just 3-10 from the floor and joined Turner on the bench with six fouls by the time it was over. Turner was invisible in the first half, but came on strong in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, it resulted in an eight and four effort with no blocks, foul trouble again limiting him to 25 minutes.
Bojan Bogdanovic wasn’t quite the James stopper he was earlier in the series, but also offered up nothing on the other end to keep pace. Bogdanovic had just three points on 1-9 shooting, his only make from seven three attempts giving Indiana the lead in the third. Lance Stephenson meanwhile hit a pair of threes as part of his eight points in 12 minutes, but wasn’t much of a factor beyond that, with he and Bogdanovic getting hit with fouls for attempting to assassinate James.
All in all, the Pacers just weren’t good enough to overcome James being the best basketball player in the world no matter if they were the better overall team. The Cavs kept the door open with these great individual performances, which allowed them to finally rise to the top in Game 7.
Given last summer’s trade for Oladipo and Sabonis and the lottery expectations, it’s easy to play the “if you told me they’d be in this position” card and be pleased with the outcome, but that’s never actually the case when knowing what the Pacers could have done to prevent this particular ending.
The sudden finality makes a third straight first round exit frustrating because of how they were so close to finally overcoming LeBron James and knowing all the while that simply facing any other Eastern Conference team means they’re likely heading into the second round with momentum, but a 5-1 series record against Eastern teams in the last seven years is the only comfort to 0-5 against James.
There is room for more optimism heading into the offseason and beyond for this Pacers team however. They’ve got cap flexibility and guys who will improve in house. Then with the should-be Executive of the Year Kevin Pritchard and the hope that James will find Los Angeles as enticing as Playoff P will, a potential path forward, even with an improving East on the horizon.
The 2017-18 Pacers will be recalled fondly as one of the most exciting seasons ever. It’s too bad they couldn’t have extended their playoff run beyond the first round, but this team’s ability to show up every night, fight every possession, and exceed every possible expectation will be a benchmark for this particular core moving forward. With true leadership in Oladipo, it will be a long five months waiting to see these guys back on the court again.
The next step for the Pacers will be the NBA Draft on June 21 and everything leading up to it. They currently hold the 23rd and 50th picks.