LeBron blocks Pacers’ path, ending special season

Victor Oladipo, LeBron James, Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2018 NBA Playoffs

It took seven games and a third 40-plus point performance from LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers to finally dispose of the Pacers. But he did it, just like he did the previous four times that he has faced the Pacers in the playoffs over the last seven years – and they’ve almost always been competitive series.

It took a major trial from Cavs coach Ty Lue, not just playing but starting Tristan Thompson, who played more in Game 7 (35 mintues) than he had all series (23). He gave them a double-double (15 and 10) and George Hill, after missing the last three games due to back spasms, chipped in 11 points in 19 second-half minutes and lightened the load on LeBron’s shoulders.

“It’s not very often you’re able to split the game ball in half, but G Hill and double T (Tristan Thompson) did that tonight,” James said.

Despite a crummy first half, the Pacers kept it close and even led for the first time in the third quarter, 59-58 on a three-pointer from Bojan Bogdanovic. But that was all they got from him on this day, going 1 for 9, and the Pacers’ season concluded Sunday afternoon. The Cavaliers hung on for a 105-101 victory and advance to play the Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals, which begin on Tuesday.

“We felt like we didn’t play a good first half and we were just 11 (points) down,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “We can win this game and our guys came out and gave another great second half effort. These guys have been playing hard for me all season long. I never doubt their effort. I never feelwe’re out of games because they always play the full 48 minutes.”

The Pacers were never able to settle in during the first 24 minutes. They looked rushed, bothered by officiating, and adapted to the Cavaliers intentionally starting their championship lineup – JR Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson from 2016, plus Kyle Korver.

“I just think with it being Game 7, just go with the guys that have been here and been through it all,” coach Ty Lue said. “They know what it takes. The new guys, they all came in and played hard.”

Where the Pacers have excelled is getting stops and then easy scores in transition. Those two things didn’t happen in the first half as the Cavs committed just one turnover, and it came in the final minute of the half.  One game after scoring 29 points off turnovers and 35 fast break points, they were limited to half that – 15 points from turnovers and 14 fast break points.

Unfortunately for teams and fans alike, the officiating impacted the game more than we’d like. Two bogus technicals were handed out, first to Lance Stephenson and then Darren Collison. Pacers bigs Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis (10 points) each fouled out, and 64 combined foul shots were taken.

Thad Young was dependable as always, recording 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Collison was good for 23 points in 41 minutes.

Nonetheless, we still saw greatness from LeBron, who made his first seven shots and attacked with great will. The Pacers won the middle two quarters, including a nine-point advantage in the third quarter, but the Cavs then pulled away for good.

LeBron got them started and the supporting cast arrived when it needed to. Four other players in double figures, including 14 from Kevin Love and 11 from JR Smith.

For the Pacers, none of this was supposed to happen. Eleven new players, including three new starters, the loss of the franchise piece and left with zero All-Stars. It was tagged by all but the front office as a rebuilding year, and even team executives didn’t project this group to win 40 games.

Over the summer, Pacers owner Herb Simon instructed President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard that this would not be a rebuild, and he had no interest in tanking. So Pritchard and his staff went out and added good guys with good talent with the intention of letting them grow together.

“I know the character of every individual person, but to come together as a team is a process,” Pritchard said back in September on media day. “You got to take some time and they got to get to know each other.”

The Pacers showed over the course of this seven-game series that they were the better team. There were, however, times when they struggled getting into their offense and when LeBron was just better.

“Kudos and big shout out to the Indiana Pacers, first of all,” said LeBron, who doesn’t often dish out praise to other teams. “They were tough. A tough team.”

Victor Oladipo, LeBron James, Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2018 NBA Playoffs

Victor Oladipo shoots over LeBron James in what was a fun back and forth. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

The dividends from a competitive series like this are plenty. As if this group needed any more motivation, here it is. Going toe to toe against the Eastern Conference representative in the finals the last three years and leaving basketball fans wanting more. They were put in new situations and were finally on display for all to see.

“Unfortunately, it ended a little sour but I wouldn’t trade this year for anybodyor those men in that locker room for anyone,” Oladipo said in one of the more memorable Pacers press conferences I can remember.

“It’s been a phenomenal year. I left it all out there. We left it all out there.It’s one of the best locker rooms, if not the best locker room I’ve ever been a part of. It was an honor to play alongsidethose gentlemen and I look forward to growing with them in the future.”

[Pritchard explains at the trade deadline that six players asked for this group to continue together]

Remember, they were televised nationally just once during the regular season — Paul George’s return on Dec. 13. All seven games were aired on either ABC/ESPN or TNT and seen by millions. Game 6 was ESPN’s highest-rated first-round game ever. The nation found out how close and how fun this group was even though they haven’t been together for eight months.

“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” Oladipo said. “And that’s just how I feel. Nobody thought we were going to be here. No one. Not one person, but us in the locker room. I feel like we’ve earned our respect from everyone.”

It could be said that this year was about setting the culture. That was atop Pritchard’s to-do list when he took over for Larry Bird almost one year ago. Now it’s about building on this 48-win season. They have no excuses with a $50 million practice facility available 24/7.

How about Oladipo texting his trainer 16 minutes after his season ended? That’s special.

“They’ve created a moment this entire season,” said a revealing Nate McMillan. “A lot of people didn’t really give us a chance and they came in, they worked hard, they worked together. … We created a culture with our organization that we will continue to build and it’s all because of the men that we had in the locker room. It was a special group. I looked forward to coming to practice every single day seeing these guys and working with them. And that’s the kind of group we want.

“We want guys who are going to come in and play for the name on the front of that jersey. It’s not about the name on the back, it’s about the Indiana Pacers.”

Team executives have incredible flexibility, with just four players’ contracts guaranteed for the 2018-19 season: Oladipo, Turner, Sabonis, and rookie T.J. Leaf. Bogdanovic and Collison are on non-guaranteed deals, and Thad Young ($13.7 million) and Cory Joseph ($7.9 million)each have player options.

They own picks 23 and 50 in the draft, held in June, have cap space where they can absorb a contract for the gain of a draft pick or a quality player. And they will work to sign Turner, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal, to another contract.

But first, Lance Stephenson recounted just how special this past year has been for them (via FSI).

“It was amazing. From the beginning of the season, each and every one of these guys was hungry. We had a goal to bring it each and every night. I don’t think there was one game where we ain’t bring it. And it was positive vibes throughout the whole season. Not one negative thing happened to make this team break apart.

“The future is bright for us. I love this team.”

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