Behind Victor Oladipo’s 28 points and first career postseason triple-double, the Pacers sent the series back to Cleveland and pushed the defending Eastern Conference champions to the brink of an early exit and a possible summer of unrest with a 121-87 rout on Friday night.
“I just went out there and played. I did everything with confidence. I just played read and react,” Oladipo said. “This game is over. It means absolutely nothing right now.”
If he can play that way one more time, the Pacers could reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.
History does not bode well for the Pacers. James is 12-0 all-time in first-round series and home teams have a major advantage in Game 7.
But the Pacers have defied the odds all season and this series has been no exception.
Their Game 1 victory, in Cleveland, ended James’ record-setting, 21-game winning streak in the first round.
In Game 6, Indiana handed the Cavs their first loss in a closeout game in 14 tries dating to 2009 and ended James’ 11-game winning streak in closeout games.
It wasn’t even close.
While James finished with 22 points, seven assists and five rebounds, coach Tyronn Lue opted to keep four of his five starters including James on the bench for the entire fourth quarter because Cleveland trailed by 25.
“They just took it to us (in the third),” James said. “They made shots. We missed shots. We didn’t counter what they were doing defensively or offensively and it just turned the game wide open.”
Indiana did it by playing old-school postseason basketball — hard, aggressive and relentless.
Kevin Love hurt his left wrist on a hard fall midway through the second quarter and wound up scoring just seven points while shooting 3 of 10 from the field. Lue provided no injury update after the game.
James took a shot, too, cutting the side of his left eye when he ran into Thaddeus Young’s elbow on a drive late in the first half. No foul was called. James continued to play with a large bandage and needed stitches after the game to close the gash.
“I thought they really played fast and tried to attack us early,” Lue said. “I don’t even remember (what happened to start the second half). I really don’t. It happened so quickly.”
But the biggest difference was Oladipo, who had struggled mightily against the Cavs’ relentless defense the previous four games.
This time, he relaxed and got his teammates back in sync on a night he finished with 13 rebounds, 10 assists, went 11 of 19 from the field and 6 of 8 on 3s.
It was enough to keep the Pacers in charge most of the game.
“This was probably the most complete game we’ve played,” Lance Stephenson said. “We got the lead and they never got back into a groove. We played smart basketball. We played lockdown defense, and I think the biggest part was we fed off their mistakes.”
The Cavs never led after the Pacers used a 12-2 run to erase a 22-17 first-quarter deficit.
They led 57-47 at halftime, extended the margin to 92-67 after three and led by as much as 36 before closing it out.
Cavaliers: The 34-point margin was Cleveland’s worst playoff loss since James returned for his second stint with the team. … Cleveland has only lost eight playoff games against the East since 2015 — three in this series. … Jeff Green scored 13 points and Rodney Hood had 12 as the Cavs committed 15 turnovers and were 12 of 38 on 3s.
Pacers: Have not lost three straight games since snapping a five-game skid in early January. … Indiana has been eliminated by James’ teams in four of its last six playoff appearances. … The Pacers produced their highest point total in the series Friday. … Seven players scored in double figures: Domantas Sabonis had 19, Darren Collison had 15, Stephenson had 12 and Bojan Bogdanovic and Young each had 10.
James was asked after the game if he had given any thought to the possibility Sunday’s game could be his last in Cleveland.
“No, no,” James said. “The thought that if we don’t play well this will be my last game of the year, that will probably hit my mind. But, um, I haven’t thought about (the future).”
James is expected to become a free agent this summer and many believe he could leave his hometown team for the second time in his career.
CALL IT AS THEY SEE IT
Pacers coach Nate McMillan artfully dodged a pregame question about whether he thought James generally received the benefit of the doubt on most close calls.
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett did not.
Hogsett signed an executive order declaring that “unlike some cities, goaltending remains an illegal action in the game of basketball – for all players, on all teams, without exception.” The proclamation continued: “Indiana is the center of the basketball universe, and sometimes that means we have an obligation to stand up and defend the basic rules of the game.”
It was an obvious shot at the call the NBA acknowledged was missed with 3 seconds left in Game 5.
Cavaliers point guard George Hill missed his third straight game but does appear to be on the mend. He participated in the Cavs’ morning shootaround, with a wrap around his injured back. And he participated in a pregame workout before he was deactivated.
Just 90 minutes before game time, Lue still didn’t know whether Hill would play.
“Not sure,” he said. “He had a workout so we’ll see.”
Game 7 will be played Sunday.
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