Upstart Pacers' reward for season? Another series vs. LeBron, Cavs

NBA.com Global on Apr 15, 2018 02:43 PM
Pacers draw another series vs. LeBron, Cavs
CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 26: Bojan Bogdanovic #44 of the Indiana Pacers handles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 26, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

It’s springtime, the Indiana Pacers have ambitions for the NBA postseason and -- oh snap! -- there’s that man again.

For the fifth time in Indiana’s past six playoff appearances, LeBron James looms as the primary obstacle. The first four meetings all went James’ way -- butting heads with his Miami Heat teams in 2012, '13 and '14, and then with Cleveland in the first round last year. If the Pacers unlock the King’s code this time, they’ll block him from extending his personal streak of NBA Finals trips to eight.

Based on Indiana’s 3-1 record in head-to-head meetings this season, you might expect the outcome this time to be different. But look closer: All four of those clashes came before February, which is to say, before the Cavaliers’ roster overhaul at the trade deadline. The East’s defending champs went 12-4 down the stretch once it got its new pieces accustomed to the system, and vice versa.

Indiana has been one of the regular season’s happiest stories, never falling below .500 after mid-November and by all statistical measures “winning” the Paul George trade with OKC from last summer. But these are the Cavs -- and this is James -- about whom we’re talking. After an often-tumultuous 82 games, Cleveland looks from the East’s No. 4 spot to be what people largely expected: a Finals favorite.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Who guards LeBron? This is (or should be) the first question in every preview of every playoff series James has been in since he made his first playoff run in 2006. Typically, Indiana will send multiple defenders at him -- Thaddeus Young, Trevor Booker, Glenn Robinson III -- and won’t stigmatize any one guy by designating him as its ‘Bron stopper (not that Lance Stephenson would shy away from the role). James averaged 28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 2.5 steals against the Pacers in their four meetings, though their defense did contribute to his frosty 4-of-21 misfiring from the arc.

2. Whose clutch is more clutch? Indiana generally started what it finished, going 41-4 when it held the lead after three quarters. The Pacers also were 11-2 (.846) in games decided by three points or fewer, which isn’t far off the NBA record by winning percentage of Philadelphia in 1979-80 (17-3, .850). But Cleveland went 39-0 when leading after three quarters, the first team since 1954-55 to go undefeated in such situations. If the Pacers aren’t in front when the fourth quarter begins, they’ll be playing uphill.

3. Is Tyronn Lue up for this? It’s true that Lue needed a late-season sabbatical to get his health straight, a stretch during which the Cavs went 8-1 in his absence. He only came back when he and his doctors felt he was 100 percent capable again. But he did touch on the stress involved after game No. 82 Wednesday, when asked about the job of coaching this drama-prone squad. “I mean it’s just something different every year,” Lue said. “You know, just, ‘As the 'Land Turns’ is what I call it. Just, it’s something every year. Three or four things every season. We always come together, we always find a way, and that’s the biggest thing.”

The number to know

29 -- The Cavs ranked 29th in defensive efficiency, allowing 109.5 points per 100 possessions, in the regular season. They're the first team to rank in the bottom three defensively and make the playoffs in the last 11 years. Since 1984 (when the playoffs went to a 16-team format), there have been seven other teams that ranked in the bottom three on defense and made the playoffs. None of those seven teams were seeded higher than seventh in their conference and all of them lost in the first round. Of course, last season, the Cavs ranked 22nd defensively in the regular season and 13th defensively in the first round (beating the Pacers in four close games) before flipping the switch and holding the Raptors and Celtics to just 102 points per 100 possessions over the next two rounds. We'll soon find out if they can flip the switch again or if they can get through the Eastern Conference by just overwhelming teams with their offense. This Indiana team is better offensively than the one they swept in the first round last season. -- John Schuhmann

Making the pick

Had someone back in October predicted Cavs-Pacers as a first-round series, we might have expected No. 1 vs. No. 8 (not No. 4 vs. No. 5). Frankly, we might have scoffed, because the expectations for Indiana were so low. But these two clubs wound up separated by just two games in the standings, which ought to give Indiana confidence. Confidence is great, too, until LeBron James punches you in the nose. Again. Cavaliers in 6.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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