Bogdanovic steals the show, Pacers take control

Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic, Los Angeles Clippers

On Friday, Bojan Bogdanovic had a podium game.

For those not familiar, players with outstanding performances in the postseason are brought to a big room adjacent to the Pacers’ locker room for them to address the media. It’s easier for high-demand players, and is seen aired live by several network broadcasts and a number of streaming platforms.

Victor Oladipo, the face of this Pacers team, went after the first two games in Cleveland. Tonight, he wanted to sit alongside his teammate. “I’ve never gone to the podium with a teammate,” he told a team spokesman.

“No, we want Bojan to have the spotlight,” he was told.

Oladipo hadn’t experienced a podium game himself … until last week. He was a postseason observer his first three years in the league, and last year was in the shadows of Russell Westbrook.

“I didn’t even know what a podium looked like,” he told me.

So, it was a podium game for Bojan after an impressive two-way performance. Yes, two-way; he was special on both offense and defense.

First, he was efficient in shooting the ball and had a night to remember. A playoff career high 30 points, four rebounds, in 36 minutes while battling foul trouble. He nailed 11 of 15 field goals, including 7 of 9 tries from beyond the arc. This, after missing 7 of 9 attempts combined in games one and two.

Those seven made 3s Friday night matched a franchise playoff record, joining Chuck Person (1991), Reggie Miller (1995, 2000), and Paul George (2014), as the only players to connect on seven three-point field goals in a game that mattered.

“I struggled the first two games in Cleveland,” he said. “I knew I needed to stick with my shots, especially because they are trying to get the ball away from Victor. I think that we did a good job today adjusting to those double teams.”

It didn’t get much attention, but Bogey had his most accurate season shooting the ball during the regular season, career highs 47.4 percent from the field and 40.2 from the arc.

LeBron had to shoulder the load for the Cavs. He scored 12 of their 21 fourth-quarter points. Even more telling: Over the final 9:17, LeBron scored all but one basket. Kevin Love’s 3-pointer with 7.7 seconds left was the exception.

As that went down, Bogdanovic single-handledly outscored LeBron 15 to 12 and he ripped off seven straight points thank to a rare four-point play.

At the other end, he welcomed the task of defending LeBron and “limited” him to 28 points. You can only hope to contain him, but Bogdanovic has done the best job this series in making it difficult.

“Just trying to get into his knees, try to push him to catch the ball far from the basket,” Bojan explained. Against those kinds of players, you just try to stay aggressive on them. He shot again, a good percent, but in the end we won the game and that’s most important.”

When asked whether he was pleased most with his offense or defense, his answer was simple.

“Honestly defense — because everybody thought that before this season that I cannot play defense,” he replied. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense but I am working hard to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

And he’s right. Nobody gave him any credit. In part because he was lost in the rebuilding project that was Brooklyn so few were watching and it’s difficult to evaluate.

“We were developing this team all season long because we didn’t know what we had,” said coach Nate McMillan. “As we continued to go through the season, we saw growth, they were put in position where they had to do certain things. … Normally he got the best two or three and he continued to work at it. We trust him and basically we’re going through that same thing in the playoffs, figuring out who we have and what are we made of.

“I think he’s committed to working at the defensive end of the floor.”

He was the only Pacer in rhythm offensively. He went 7 of 9 from distance as the other eight guys combined to shoot 1 for 17. 1 for freaking 17. Bojan to the rescue.

“He did an excellent job. I give him 100 on the test. Both ends,” said teammate Lance Stephenson, who guarded LeBron when Bogdanovic was not. “He did a good job of LeBron, he hit open shots, he attacked. We’ve seen he can do that throughout the season but for him to do this in the playoffs is amazing.”

Meanwhile, what makes his offensive performance so impressive was that he had to be worn down, borderline exhausted after chasing and taking the physical pounding that comes when matching up against the best player in the world. And yet he still shot 73 percent.

“That’s tough,” said Cory Joseph, who has played in many big playoff games. “When you’re guarding one of their main players, that takes a toll on you on the defensive end. On the offensive end you need that extra energy to knock down those shots. He had it rolling. We were finding him, he was getting open, and it was knocked down.”

It helps that coach McMillan stressed Olympic-level conditioning in the preseason. It was something he stressed each day in September and into October. They went into the season with the thought that even if they had less talent on the floor, they would be in the best shape of any team.

“When he’s playing (defense) and shooting the ball like that, we’re a solid team,” said McMillan. “He wanted it tonight.”

Bogdanovic added: “I think our team and our mentality is completely different than the other teams.”

Even LeBron, who doesn’t often praise guys not on his team, was willing to offer up this.

“He had it going. He was shooting for deep and was one of the few that was making shots in the first half. … He’s definitely capable of doing that.”

The Pacers had a poor first half. They weren’t sharp and weren’t getting good looks. Like so many times during the regular season, they fell in a deep hole — only to recover.

They trailed the Cavaliers by 17 points, 57-40, at the break. They discussed how they have been here before and could recover just like they did in previous months. And, they made a few adjustments.

The Pacers held the Cavaliers to 33 second-half points, a total they nearly topped in the final stanza alone (29). The Cavs missed 17 of 22 three-point attempts and got 15 points from their leader, but nobody else stepped up. When that’s the case, the Pacers will always win.

As such, they have taken a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, and all of the pressure remains on Cleveland. They are the No. 4 seed, have home-court advantage, and LeBron. Yet the Pacers remain the better team. Credit Pacers President Kevin Pritchard for not just signing guys, but for signing the right guys. The complete a puzzle that is this locker room where they fit with one another and enjoy one another.

Game 4 is Sunday at 8:30 pm, again in Indianapolis and in front of a nationally-televised crowd on TNT.

“It was a big win, a big game for him. But it’s only one game. I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

[Photo: Frank McGrath/PS&E]

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