The Indiana Pacers are like the fictional African nation of Wakanda from Black Panther. Everyone else in the world thinks they are one thing, just a place you don’t need to worry about, live practice for a first-round contender, but now they’re shocking the basketball world with revelations of their elite technology and weapons that give them a chance against anyone as they go into the fourth game of the series with a 2-1 lead over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Indiana has been staying in obscurity all season, lurking in the shadows, appearing only once on national television.
Except the Pacers have been showing this all year. They weren’t trying to keep this a secret like Wakanda. They beat Cleveland three times this season. They swept the Golden State Warriors. It’s just no one was paying attention or perhaps not taking them seriously enough as a threat to care.
Otherwise, no one would be surprised that the team leading the league in comebacks this season would comeback from a 17-point halftime deficit. Cleveland shouldn’t be shocked by Indiana’s resiliency as they’ve already overcome a 20+ point lead against the Cavs in the regular season.
“There’s been a lot of fight in these guys all season long,” Nate McMillan said after Game 3. “We’ve been in that situation at half where we’ve been down or we haven’t played our best basketball and they come out and just continue to fight, continue to scrap.”
Before Game 3, the Cavaliers were 40-0 in games in which they led at the end of the third quarter. But to quote a different movie, the Pacers never say die.
“I just thought that their physicality, denying the basketball, getting into us when we catch the ball, we were back on our heels,” said Lue after a long pause when asked what the difference was after halftime. “The pressure, I thought it just hurt us tonight. Ten turnovers in the second half, that cost us, too. We just didn’t come out in the third quarter ready to play. I had to call a quick timeout, which hurt us down the stretch, not having a timeout. They were definitely better in the third quarter. They were tougher than us in the second half.”
As Oladipo put it after game one, “We’ve been playing like this all season long. … Now it’s just magnified,” and repeating the first part of that quote after game three, adding “not to sound redundant.”
Unlike the Cavaliers, however, the Pacers are more than their one-man superhero. They pride themselves on togetherness.
When their superstar has a below par game, here comes a Bogey. Bojan Bogdanovic had a game and specifically a fourth quarter that will endear himself to Pacers fans forever, completely erasing what was likely to be a negative legacy in Indiana.
“He did an incredible job for us on both ends of the floor,” Oladipo said. “When he’s playing like that, it opens it up for everybody.”
All that hot shooting, the four-point play, the drives to the basket while also guarding the best player in the world on the other end, outscoring him in the process. It doesn’t seem like it should be possible.
“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” said McMillan, “but offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”
None of those looks bigger than the 4-point play that gave the Pacers the lead that they never relinquished in the fourth in what was perhaps the loudest moment in the history of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“The place just erupted,” Myles Turner said. “We were going crazy on the sidelines. It’s something that I was expecting and it exceeded my expectations. I’ve been here three years. This was probably the most fun game I’ve been a part of.”
It’s hard to imagine the Cavaliers winning a game where James scores only 18 points on 5-of-15 shooting while struggling with turnovers. It’s why many believe the Pacers have the better team in the series, but that doesn’t always matter when the best player is on the other team and he’s also the best player in the league.
Everybody seems to contribute for the Pacers whether it’s Turner scoring a couple consecutive buckets in the third quarter or Thad Young making huge defensive plays repeatedly or Lance Stephenson using his peskiness as a net positive. Everyone has a role and they’ve known that role since the beginning of the season.
The Cavaliers meanwhile are still figuring their roles out with so many new pieces acquired at the deadline as George Hill admitted he still doesn’t know what his role is on the team before scoring 13 points in Game 3.
The Pacers know their work is far from over if they want to dethrone the long-reigning king of the Eastern Conference, but they’ve said all series long they came to win, not just get close.
“Remember LeBron was down 3-1 in a series and won,” said Darren Collison when asked if there was any complacency after going up 2-1. They know the task will be difficult, but they’ve been confident all series long.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Pacers 2-1 lead is how much room for improvement the Pacers still have even while having a chance to win all three games. They’ve yet to play their best for a full 48 minutes and still look like the better team through three games. They don’t have to play perfectly to beat the Cavaliers as evidenced by their 17 turnovers in Game 3 and only playing well for a single half.
They know they can’t rely on making second-half comebacks every night but they keep their calm when they start the game behind because they’ve done it so many times before.
“They stay together,” said McMillan, “and they pulled through another big win as they did tonight.”