- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- There were two questions that loomed Wednesday as the Indiana Pacers prepared to face the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The first answer came early in the day when the weather was unseasonably warm. After sitting out each of his last two trips to the Circle City, LeBron James confirmed he would take the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the first time in 373 days.
The second answer was the more expected outcome and came as temperatures plunged into a February freeze. It was a well-rehearsed routine executed with precision -- a minimally invasive procedure. As snow collected on the pavement outside the arena, James and company humbled the Pacers in a 132-117 victory, snapping Indiana’s seven game win streak.
James didn’t disappoint in his return, putting up a casually brilliant 25 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Teammate Kyrie Irving was just as sensational, scoring a game-high 29 points while carving up the Pacers’ refurbished defense at will. The newly-acquired Kyle Korver came off the bench to sink eight of his nine attempts from behind the 3-point arc, matching Irving’s scoring output. After trailing by six at the half, Cleveland used a 40-18 run during the third quarter to essentially ice the game.
In short, Cleveland is better than Indiana.
But everyone already knew that, including the Pacers, who played well aside from the third quarter mini-meltdown. Paul George nearly equaled James’ production with 22 points, eight boards and six assists. CJ Miles scored a Pacers-high 23 points and Jeff Teague dropped another double-double with 22 points and 14 assists. The Pacers shot 50 percent from the floor and 52 percent from downtown.
Cleveland made shots when it counted while Indiana picked a horrible time to play its worst defensive quarter of the season. The Cavs went for the throat while the Pacers went on the fritz.
“It’s tough, man,” Miles said. “Obviously we’ve been playing extremely well and winning games, and you want to continue winning games. You know you’re not going to win all of them, but you go out there and put it all on the floor. That’s a talented team. There are things we feel like we obviously could have done better throughout the game, but at the same time, there are a lot of things we did well. We controlled the game for the most part, but they made their runs, too.”
Wednesday’s game was a litmus test for Indiana, a measuring stick to gage their new-found efficiency. Though Indiana entered tied for the best record in the East since the New Year, the team lacked a bevy of signature wins. Aside from a blowout victory against Houston, the Pacers munched on Sacramento, Orlando Detroit, Brooklyn and Minnesota -- teams with a combined record of 94-171. Empty calories.
The Cavs were a full course meal, a “triple-headed monster,” as George put it. But as the seven-year veteran sat as his locker, draped in towels and still wet from a post-game shower, he already looked to the future and a gut-check game Friday against the Washington Wizards.
“If we’re serious about where we want to get to, then we’ll respond Friday,” George said. “That’s all I want to see. If we’re serious about who we are and who we want to be, Friday will mean a lot to us. Hopefully, as a group, tasting a little bit of success is what we want to get to.”
- Phil Taylor
George is dead-on in his assessment. The Pacers are two games into a defining stretch of the season in which they will face a playoff team almost every game until March 5. If they’re serious about turning their so-so season around, they must respond to the challenge or get back in line with the rest of the indistinguishable pretenders in the East.
Indiana has split its two games against Washington this season and will play them twice more within a six day period. Just like the surging Pacers, the Wizards are on a tear of their own, winning 11 of their last 13 to catapult from the bottom of the conference to the third seed. John Wall is averaging a double-double in that span, Bradley Beal is shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and Otto Porter is in the midst of a breakout season after spending much of his career as an NBA also-ran.
A Pacers win would be more than just another tally in the victory column, but a signal that this team has finally developed a backbone and learned to compartmentalize dispiriting losses. That they’ve learned to take adversity and use it to fuel their desire to be more than the sum of their parts.
It’s easier said than done, especially with impending matchups against San Antonio, Memphis, and another road trip to Cleveland scheduled before the end of the month. But for the Pacers, the improvement on the scoreboard begins internally.
“You have to deal with (adversity) a little better, just as far as the morale as a whole,” Miles said of Indiana’s strategy to rebound from Wednesday’s loss. “You can kind of see the wind come out of us a little bit and we’ve got to do a little better job of doing that.”