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Historic collapse leaves Pacers in tatters

Paul George was good, but LeBron James was great in Game 3. (Getty Images)

Everywhere you looked, you saw a Pacers player or coach with the stunned look of the guy in the trailer park after the tornado hits.

Excuse me, sir, can you tell us what happened?

“There was a roaring sound like a freight train, the sky got real dark and next thing I knew everything was upside down.”

The freight train was LeBron James. The roaring sound was the air being sucked out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse by the Pacers' swirling vortex of doom in the second half. And the Cavaliers turned a beautifully built first half into a pile of splinters.

In the biggest second-half collapse in NBA playoff history, the Pacers blew a 25-point halftime lead and lost 119-114, Thursday to fall into a 3-0 hole in the first-round series. 

Their biggest lead was 26 (72-46) in the second quarter, so this tied for the third-biggest collapse overall in NBA playoff history. Interestingly, Nate McMillan was also part of the biggest, as a player for Seattle in 1989 when the Sonics blew a 29-point lead to the Lakers.

Swirl those numbers around for a moment. This wasn’t just bad, it was epic. It was the kind of game that can scar a team forever, well beyond the conclusion of this series. The Pacers will predictably, defiantly puff out their chests and suggest they can pick up the pieces and rebuild their ability to compete, but they are the only ones who might believe that. Assuming they really do.

“Sunday’s game will be a test of our character,” McMillan said. “It just comes down to that. Who will show up and fight to win a  game and try to extend this series, which is what I expect to= happen. We know what we need to do in order to give ourselves a chance to win. We showed that in the first half. But it’s not a 24-minute game, not a 36-minute game, it’s a 48-minute game and I expect us to come out Sunday and lay it all on the line for 48 minutes to try to extend this series. It’s do-or-die time now.”

Truth be told, the team’s character was revealed in the second half when, instead of buckling down and finishing the job, the Pacers did everything they could to lose the game: soft defense, slow offense, no hustle, no tempo, no fight.

How passive was the defense? Cleveland didn’t commit a single turnover, and this is a team that will launch it into the bleachers with impressive frequency when pressured. The only way the Cavs would mount a comeback would be to get hot from the 3-point line, so the Pacers gave them all the room they needed to go 12 of 21.

LeBron James was so good (41 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists), he won the game with a lineup featuring Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert for most of the fourth quarter while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love watched from the bench.

“Here we are up 26 to start the second half with a chance to put our foot on their throat and we came out relaxed,” said Paul George. “We didn’t pressure up on the ball, we didn’t make anything tough. I thought they had stretches again where they were walking into wide-open 3-pointers and you can’t do that. We’ve been getting beat like that. We got beat like that in Game 1, we got beat like that in Game 2. At some point we’ve got to nip that in the bud, giving uncontested threes up.”

The offense didn’t help, either. The tempo, the aggression that marked a brilliant first half that included a franchise playoff-record 74 points vanished. Even Lance Stephenson fell victim to the funereal pace as the Cavs collapsed their defense and dared the Pacers to shoot jumpers. Indiana shot 13 of 51 (.255) in the second half, 6 of 24 (.250) from the arc.

Although George played another massive game with 36 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, he was noticeably absent in the third quarter, when things started to swing Cleveland’s way. The Cavs had an early eight-point run to cut it to 15, then had a 17-2 run late to cut it to five. 
George didn’t score in the quarter, missing all five of his shots.

“I watched it kind of unravel,” he said. “That’s when I should’ve stepped in and demanded the ball maybe a little bit more, just to start out, get us going, get everybody in rhythm again. I did a poor job of that at the start of the third.”

But once again he had precious little help. No one else scored more than Jeff Teague’s 15 points, and Myles Turner took the rest of the night off after throwing down an impressive dunk early in the second quarter. That would be his last scoring of a six-point, five-rebound, 3-of-12 shooting night. In the second half,  Turner was 0-of-7, Stephenson 1-of-6 and Thaddeus Young 1-of-5.

At least George came to life in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 of the team’s first 18 points, but there was no stopping James. He scored eight in a 14-2 run, punctuated by a huge jam that put the Cavs in front 100-98, and then they stretched the margin from the 3-point line.

Even the officials contributed to the Pacers’ misery, missing an obvious hack by J.R. Smith that caused George to lose the ball out of bounds. Instead of two shots for the Pacers, trailing 111-107 at the time, the Cavs got the ball and Frye promptly drained a 3-pointer that made it a seven-point game with 54.8 seconds left. 

“You have to come out with the urgency to put a team away and not give them any life,” McMillan said. “Your defense, you have to establish that right from the start. You have the opportunity to be even more aggressive with the lead like we had. I thought we came out kind of passive. You’ve got to know that LeBron, they all are going to be more aggressive trying to get to the basket and they’re going to look for the three-ball. They’re going to take some chances and launch some threes. ... 

“I just didn’t think we established that killer instinct of keeping the pressure on them offensively, defensively tightening up even more than we had in the first half. When they did make a bucket, we’re walking the ball down the floor and calling sets and allowing their defense to get set. And when we were missing shots, we felt the pressure and shots we were knocking down in the first half didn’t fall in the second half.”

While passing Kobe Bryant into third place on the league’s all-time playoff scoring list, James also won his 20th consecutive first-round game, tying the longest streak ever. He hasn’t lost a first-round game in five years. 
And the Pacers?

“We’ve got to go out with a fight. We’ve got to go out swinging,” George said. “The good thing for us, we’ve been great at facing this kind of adversity and this kind of pressure, of having to win to stay alive. Hopefully we can learn from the end of the season, getting wins when we needed to. We’ve got to look at this whole series as very winnable.”

The Pacers will spend the next three days insisting they aren’t out of this series. The fact is, even with those glorious moments in the first half Thursday night, they’ve not been in it. 

This storm may have passed, but the damage is done.



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