Pacers meet Cavaliers in pivotal matchup

The Indiana Pacers are in the midst of a season-high seven-game winning streak and attempting to climb the standings in the Eastern Conference.

On Wednesday night, Indiana will welcome the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a matchup that presents a flurry of storylines.

Will LeBron James play or rest (James sat out the Pacers’ 103-93 victory over Cleveland on November 16)?

“I ain’t sitting,” he told reporters at morning shootaround.

Can Indiana win its eighth straight and prove they are legitimate?

Which Pacers defense will show up? The one that has allowed fewer than 100 points in its past four outings, or the one that gave up 100+ in its final seven games of January?

If James plays, the Pacers are staring at a golden opportunity to determine just how high a ceiling this team has. Defeating the Cavaliers with James on the floor inks the blue and gold as one of the rising contenders in the East come playoff time. No small task it would be, however.

James has quite the history of slowing Indiana’s momentum in recent memory. With his former team, the Miami Heat, James knocked the Pacers out of the postseason three years in a row from 2012-2014, with the second and third meetings coming in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Since rejoining Cleveland, James helped the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals the past two seasons, winning it all in a dramatic seven-games last season. Indiana watched the playoffs from home in 2015 and were defeated in the first round by the Toronto Raptors last season.

Cleveland entered the 2016-17 campaign with its core of James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson still intact. Since the last time these two teams faced each other, the Cavs added sharpshooter Kyle Korver from the Atlanta Hawks to their repertoire. Korver, in his 14th season, has been nothing short of a pain in Indiana’s side since 2010, when he was with the Chicago Bulls. In 2013 and ’14, the Pacers had to get past Korver and the Hawks en route to eventual showdowns with Miami in the ECF.

There is not a better time for Indiana to test its mettle against the cream of the crop — Cleveland is the undisputed favorite to reach The Finals for a third straight season. The Pacers, coming off a tough 93-90 victory over Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night, will continue to lean heavily on their defensive improvement over the past week while seeking an eighth-straight win.

A challenge awaits on that front as the Cavaliers own the league’s third-best offense, averaging 110.6 points per game.

As many as four All-Stars could face off on the same floor Wednesday: James and Irving were voted to start in this month’s All-Star game in New Orleans. Love and the Pacers’ Paul George are slated as reserves for the East.

The stakes are different this time around for all the familiar foes. Nevertheless, it should feel every bit a playoff atmosphere in Indianapolis with season series bragging rights and, potentially, playoff seeding on the minds of the players, coaches and fans alike.

[Photo: Frank McGrath]

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