For the second time in as many games, Paul George chided one of his teammates during his post-game remarks from the podium, providing honest and measured assessments that don’t bring the Pacers any closer to upsetting LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
After a narrow Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers, the All-Star forward was bummed that he hadn’t gotten the chance to play hero, telling reporters that C.J. Miles should have passed the ball back to him on the game’s final play because in “situations like that, I’ve got to get the last shot.” Then, following Monday’s 117–111 loss in which Lance Stephenson let his frustration show on the court, George matter-of-factly stated that the mercurial guard “has gotta learn to control himself” and added that “his body language has to improve, just for the team.”
George’s Game 1 comments were understandable, if slightly misguided given the tight time/score circumstances and Miles’s acceptable last-second attempt. His Game 2 comments, if better left unsaid, were indisputable on the merits, as Stephenson’s unpredictability clearly played a role in a circuitous journey that saw him play for five different teams between the end of the 2013–2014 season and his return to Indiana in March.
However, as the series shifts to Indiana for Thursday’s Game 3, George’s takes ultimately read more like symptoms of Indiana’s problems rather than workable prescriptions for what would be a shocking turnaround in this series. Indeed, even if George launched more than the 19.5 shots per game he’s averaging and even if Stephenson remained on his best behavior, the Pacers would still be saddled with fundamental match-up issues that will likely turn this into a quick series.
Game 2 got away from Indiana during a critical stretch late in the third quarter in which Cleveland’s Kevin Love repeatedly pounded Stephenson in the post, scoring 10 of his 27 points in less than two minutes of game action. At first glance, the “Mouse in the House” treatment seemed inexcusable. What did Pacers coach Nate McMillan expect would happen if he tried to defend a 6’10” power forward with a 6’5” wing?
The Cavaliers were ruthless during this stretch: Love backed down Stephenson to draw a foul, James fed Love deep in the paint for a turnaround hook, Love backed down Stephenson to draw another foul, Love crashed the weak side glass for an easy tip-in over smaller defenders and then Love drew a third set of free throws by pounding on Miles.
This was basketball surgery: identify the opponent’s weakness, exploit it, and keep exploiting it until the pain becomes unbearable. “If they’re going to play small like that, Kevin should dominate,” said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. “The guys kept feeding me,” Love added. “That was just a moment in the game that we took advantage of a certain situation.”
That certain situation was just one of many. McMillan explained that Stephenson drew the assignment on Love because Indiana needed George to match up on Kyrie Irving, who torched Indiana for a game-high 37 points on 14–24 shooting. James also had no trouble dicing up the Pacers, finishing with 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists as he got deep into the paint at will. While McMillan acknowledged that Indiana could have done a better job making Love work to receive the entry pass, he seemed to be resigned to the fact that the Pacers were stuck in a classic case of Whac-A-Mole.
“We were trying to cool off Kyrie,” McMillan said. “[The Cavaliers] go at matchups. They did a good job of recognizing matchups and taking advantage. I thought that was huge. … This is a good team. they pose a lot of challenges for you with the main weapons that they can go to.”
McMillan’s frontcourt alternatives aren’t great. Power forward Thaddeus Young can’t play 48 minutes. 21-year-old center Myles Turner has shown his age. Reserve forward Kevin Seraphin and Lavoy Allen are less than ideal options against skilled, high-powered, and fully-spaced lineups. And reserve center Al Jefferson, a methodical 32-year-old low-post player, would likely be toast. That underperforming and underwhelming cast of bigs forced McMIllan to turn to his wing corps, namely Stephenson, for help.
While Indiana president Larry Bird has taken clear steps to improving his team’s versatility and athleticism in recent years by dumping Roy HIbbert, moving on from David West, drafting Turner and trading for Young, all of that purposeful activity has still left his roster without reliable answers to Cleveland’s well-balanced frontline.
Even with George staking his claim to the “Best player in the East not named LeBron” conversation, there’s nothing the Pacers can do to simultaneously handle Tristan Thompson’s offensive rebounding, Love’s natural inside-outside game, and James’s lethal combination of off-the-dribble strength to the hoop and pinpoint distribution.
And when Cleveland adds an extra shooter and connects on a decent clip from beyond the arc, Indiana’s perimeter defense isn’t connected enough and its interior defense isn’t imposing enough to make much of a dent. “Their small lineup is better than your small lineup,” McMillan admitted.
Indiana will welcome the change of venue for Game 3 and may receive a boost if J.R. Smith remains limited or sidelined by a hamstring injury that kept him out for the closing portion of Game 2. If George gets into a groove and if Turner can make himself a more helpful trap-beating threat, the Pacers could still make this interesting. But Cleveland’s advantages in talent and execution have been stark enough that George’s grumbles might only be beginning.