Pathetic. Lazy. Embarrassing.
There is a veritable cornucopia of adjectives to describe just how awful the Indiana Pacers' game 3 loss to Cleveland was on Thursday night. The Pacers blew what was at one point a 26-point lead against the Cavs, being outscored 70-40 in the second half. Cleveland's performance was spearheaded by the greatness of LeBron James, who tallied a 41-point triple double, all while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat on the bench for most of the half.
Still, there was one word in particular that stood out most after the buzzer sounded:
In many ways, Indiana's monstrosity of a game 3 was a microcosm of their entire season. On any given night, this roster is capable of playing a crisp, ball-moving offense that can overwhelm opponents with efficient shooting and foul shots. The very next night, they succumb to lackadaisical defense, including poor switching and close-outs, and college-level offense with ball-sticking, ill-advised 3's, and heavy reliance on isolation.
The first half could not have gone more perfectly for Indiana. The Pacers shot a scorching-hot 25-44 (56.8%) from the field including 10-17 (58.8%) from 3-point range. Indiana worked its halfcourt offense brilliantly, using fluid ball movement to rack up 17 assists on their made field goals. Their superstar, Paul George, scored at will, nearly outscoring the Cavaliers in the second quarter by himself (22-21). George finished the first half with 23 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists, and 6 other Pacers had at least 6 points. The 74 points Indiana scored in the opening half was the most they had ever scored in the first half of a playoff game. On the defensive side of the ball, Indiana held Cleveland to 36.7% shooting and forced 8 turnovers, leading to 12 Pacers points. As the halftime horn sounded, Indiana led 74-49 and seemed well on their way to pulling within one game of the Cavs and forcing at least a 5th game.
But, by rule, all NBA games must have a 2nd half.
James played all 24 minutes of the 2nd half, and his play elevated to a plane equal to that of his legendary performance against Boston in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. Shot after shot, drive after drive, and pass after pass, James controlled all aspects of the game like perhaps no other player in NBA history could have done, and the Pacers were shell-shocked and stifled. After regaining a 20-point lead with 5:01 left in 3rd quarter, Cleveland rattled off 14 straight points, with James scoring or assisting on 7 points. James ended the period with back to back pull-up 3-point baskets from the left wing, and Indiana's 25 point lead had evaporated faster than you could say "Boom, baby." After setting a franchise scoring record in the first half, Indiana managed just 17 points, receiving no scoring from George. As a whole, the Pacers shot an abysmal 5-27 from the field, with poor shooting often stemming from a lack of off-ball movement. When the ball sticks in Indiana's court, it usually spells doom for the possession, unless George is able to bail them out with a shot drawn from thin air. Obviously, that was not the case Thursday.
The 4th quarter was more of the same, with Cleveland slowly putting the finishing touches on the comeback before back to back James dunks gave the Cavs their first lead since the 1st quarter. The Pacers traded buckets for several possessions, but the damage was done. Once James threw down a vicious one-handed slam to give Cleveland the lead, this game was over. The signs of low-effort, disinterested play were apparent in the previous quarter, and that degree of slip-up is impermissible against the defending champions. By the time the Cavs had made it a multi-possession game, Indiana panicked and began settling for Myles Turner and Thad Young 3-pointers instead of relying on the blueprint that brought success in the first half.
Literally every aspect of the Pacers' Jekyll-and-Hyde season was on full display tonight, and as a result, Indiana finds themselves in a more than likely insurmountable 3-0 series deficit. There's little doubt that Cleveland has this series wrapped up, so now Indiana must simply play for pride starting Sunday afternoon. Tonight's collapse might also damage Indiana's chances at retaining Paul George past his current contract. If the Pacers are to gain any favor in George's eyes, Indiana must make the remaining game(s) interesting enough to prove that he can be the centerpiece of a competitive team in Indy.