Pacers postseason runs through LeBron-led Cavaliers, again

Lebron James, Lance Stephenson, Born Ready, Cleveland Cavaliers, Pacers

The Pacers are in the NBA Playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, and for the fifth time it will run through The Best Player In The World: LeBron James.

LeBron-led teams have knocked the Pacers out all five times. If they want to continue playing into May, they must get past James & Co, which they’ve never done.

“It’s tough,” former Pacers President Larry Bird said at his end-of-season press conference on May 1st. “LeBron James is, no doubt, one of the greatest. I don’t think he’s Michael Jordan but you can put him up there close to him. He’s a dominant player. In our series, he made a difference every game.”

LeBron’s teams are 48-7 all-time in the first round, including 21 straight wins. That’s the longest active streak under the current format, dating back to 1984. He hasn’t lost a first-round game since 2012, to the New York Knicks.

He’s reached the NBA Finals seven consecutive years. Four times in Miami and the last three with Cleveland, including the 2016 Championship season.

The Pacers will try to end an incredible first-round run that has resulted in five straight sweeps, including the Pacers last April.

“Every time we threw a punch, they threw one right back. And that’s why they won,” Lance Stephenson said afterwards.

[Battle with LeBron excites but doesn’t intimate Lance Stephenson, who was key in 22-point comeback]

I asked Paul George about it after Game 4 last year.

“Yeah, it’s real frustrating to continue on losing to the same team or the same person,” he said. “It’s real frustrating. It’s what I work hard for in the summers.”

LeBron, a serious contender for his fifth NBA MVP award, in his 15th season and playing arguably his best basketball. He averaged 27.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game. The latter two are both career highs. And for the first time in his career, he played in all 82 games. (And he’s never missed a postseason game.)

LeBron played Wednesday in the team’s regular-season finale to score at least 10 points, extending his own NBA record for consecutive games in double figures (873).

For the second straight postseason, the Pacers meet the Cavaliers in round one. And although the Pacers were swept, each game was a high-level game. Ultimately, the Cavaliers won — and by an average of four points per game — but it was perhaps their toughest test until they lost to the Golden State Warriors in the finals.

But … This is a different Cavaliers (50-32) team, and a better-than-expected Pacers group that won six more games than last year to finish 48-34. They have an All-Star in Victor Oladipo — who was drafted by LeBron in the All-Star game two months ago — and have a locker room that is as tight-knit as I’ve seen in 12 years.

See Also:Pacers training staff to assist Team LeBron at 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend

NBA observers, including fans, have counted out the Pacers since The Paul George Trade. That doubt then fueled this special season. And for the little it’s worth, the Pacers won three of four regular-season meetings.

While the Cavaliers played the New York Knicks Wednesday night, the Pacers had the day off. This first-round series will begin in Cleveland for Games 1 and 2.

“It’s the most special time for an NBA player,” said Pacers point guard Darren Collison, who led the NBA in three-point percentage (46.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (4.3).

“You play all season long and a lot of people really don’t watch the games, but everybody watches every single playoff game. You play at the highest level. It’s big-time basketball. Unfortunately for me, the last three years I was (at home) watching. I was actually taking some notes of what I would do if I was able to reach it.”

The Pacers appeared on national television just once this season: December 13th. Paul George’s return to Indy.

“Nobody knows who were are,” Collison continued. “They hear about us but they haven’t seen us play. It’ll be nice for the whole world to see how we play and how we get down.”

[VIDEO: Darren Collison plays pick-up games with LeBron James at UCLA]

Most of the Pacers’ roster is new to this matchup. For the Pacers, Thad Young and Myles Turner are the only key contributors back from last postseason. The Cavaliers’ roster, which was seriously altered at the trade deadline in February, still includes Kevin Love, JR Smith, and Kyle Korver.

New to the Cavaliers roster but not to the series: Indianapolis native George Hill. He was acquired via trade with Sacramento in February.

The 1990s Pacers had Michael Jordan blocking their way. The Colts had Tom Brady’s New England Patriots. LeBron has owned the Eastern Conference since 2011. The Pacers have the first opportunity this postseason to dethrone the king.

“It seems like every years he’s in the way,” Stephenson told me before Game 4 last year. “We’re going to get him. We’re going to get him.”

And basketball fans will be tuned in to see.

[Stephenson is stilling answering questions about blowing in LeBron’s ear]

LeBron’s Team in the First Round:

2016-17: swept Pacers
2015-16: swept Pistons
2014-15: swept Celtics
2013-14: swept Hornets
2012-13: swept Bucks
2011-12: Beat Knicks in five games, lost Game 4 in NY

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