The Indiana Pacers were supposed to win 30 games this year. Every media outlet said so. Even Kevin Pritchard, the person who built this roster, admitted that their expectations were similarly low on the televised broadcast of Game 1 in this series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They’ve been shocking everyone since the beginning of the season. Can they do it one more time in a road Game 7 against the best player in the world in LeBron James?
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Victor Oladipo of the deciding game after the Pacers blowout win in Game 6. “There’s nothing wrong with a little challenge. Obviously, it’s a big challenge ahead but we’re looking forward to the game.”
Oladipo has relished the challenges all season and has done it with impressive positivity. He’s become a franchise cornerstone, making his first All-Star team and setting career highs in basically every meaningful statistic, while claiming Indianapolis as his city and the fanbase has happily enjoyed the ride and embraced him completely.
Even with Oladipo struggling more and more with each successive game in the series after his initial blow up in Game 1, he remained positive and calmly put up a triple double in an elimination game and rediscovered his lost jumper.
“Just went out there and played,” said Oladipo. “Did everything with confidence. Didn’t overthink it. Just play, read, and react.”
Oladipo sets the tone for the team, but if you have any doubts about whether the Pacers have the better team in this series but the Cavaliers have the best player just look at the margin of victory for each game. Cleveland has won their three games by a total of 10 points while James has had to put up a pair of 40-point nights and hit a buzzer-beating game winner, all with Oladipo either struggling or saddled for parts of the game with foul trouble. The Pacers on the other hand have a pair of blowout wins by double digits and a comeback victory from a 17-point halftime deficit.
“Vic was amazing today, defensively, it just seemed like I saw like three, four Vics out there today,” Darren Collison said of Oladipo’s 4-steal night in Game 6. “You know, he’s our leader, he’s our best player. We kind of follow his lead.”
In Game 6, we saw what this team can do when everyone is playing well, especially their All Star. Facing elimination, the Pacers thoroughly dominated on both ends on their way to a 34-point blowout.
“Tomorrow will be another test,” Head Coach Nate McMillan said after today’s practice. “I thought they passed the test last night. All the things we asked them to do and the challenges we threw out to them, they passed that test. Now we’re in Game 7. It’s the first time for me and this group. We’ll see how we respond to that.”
The Pacers have been calling themselves resilient from day one, but last night’s effort may top the list of examples of that trait. After coming up just short after a missed goaltending call and a game-winning 3-pointer both by James and now facing elimination from the playoffs, the Pacers did what they’ve done in the face of adversity every time they’ve seen it this season: kick it in the face.
“It’s do or die for us, and we came out with a sense of urgency. I thought that we did a good job of pressuring the ball and keeping the ball in front of us,” said McMillan. “Not allowing them to get to the basket as they did in Game 5. We were much better connected on both ends of the floor.”
The Pacers get contributions from everyone in the rotation:
- Lance Stephenson kept his composure while rattling LeBron again, making some big shots and big passes.
- Domantas Sabonis has recovered from his rough first three games and has scored 19, 22 and 19 points in the last three while shooting a ludicrous 74% from the field.
- Darren Collison had his best game of the series with 15 points.
- Myles Turner continues his solid play on the series as he’s made 61% of his shots while averaging over 13 points per game on just 8.5 shot attempts.
- Thaddeus Young has locked down Kevin Love all series and made him look nothing like his All-Star self.
- Bojan Bogdanovic provided the timely shooting that went into overdrive in Game 3.
- The importance of Cory Joseph’s perimeter defense can’t be overstated.
The Cavaliers meanwhile have struggled to provide much of any help to this point for James, outside of a few Kyle Korver threes.
Indiana will need a similarly balanced approach in Game 7 on the road where the teams go to battle one last time.
“It’s going to be like a war zone,” Oladipo said. “Looking forward to going to war.”
“It’s basketball. Both teams know each other. It’s going to be the strongest survive tomorrow. Both teams are going to bring it,” McMillan added. “You know what each other is going to do. There’s not too many changes you can make at this point. You got to go out there and get it done.”
The teams have made their adjustments. It’s unlikely to see anything to drastic from either team in the final game of the series (though it’s still surprising that Jeff Green is getting minutes for Cleveland).
“Win or go home. It’s just that simple,” said James.
They’ve made LeBron bleed in this series, both literally and figuratively. They know he can be beaten. They just have to do it.
The Pacers have been in this situation with LeBron before. This is the 5th postseason series where LeBron and Indiana have squared off and it’ll be the second Game 7. Other than last season, the Pacers have always made it tougher than expected, but they’ve never gotten over the hump. Most of the past series final games were blowout affairs in favor of the Heat. It’s hard to see this group of Pacers going down like that, but will they be the ones to finally dethrone James and his long-reign over the Eastern Conference?
The Pacers are already the first team to push LeBron to an elimination game in the first round of the playoffs, but Indiana has said all series they aren’t just looking to get close.
“We’re fully aware of LeBron,” Oladipo said after Game 1. “We’re fully aware of his team. And we realize it’s not going to be easy, but we’re not going to come in here and just fold. We’re planning on winning, that’s why we came to this series, that’s why we came to play this game.”
Now is their chance to shock the world.