- The Cavs looked like they were sailing toward an easy win before halftime, then Bojan Bogdanovic exploded offensively and Cleveland's offense couldn't keep up.
For the first time since 2008, a LeBron James-led team has lost two games in the first round. And James largely has Bojan Bogdanovic to thank for that inauspicious stat. Bogdanovic scored an eye-popping 30 points Friday, as the Pacers took a 2–1 lead on the Cavaliers in their quarterfinal series with a 92–90 win. James scored 28, including a barrage of clutch threes down the stretch, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Indy’s balanced attack.
Friday night’s game was an example of the beauty of the playoffs. The Cavaliers adjusted their defensive strategy to prevent Victor Oladipo from taking over the game, but the Pacers adjusted on the fly to hold home court. After Oladipo matched James in star wattage in Games 1 and 2, the Cavs held him in check Friday, largely by sending a series of traps and hard double-teams his way. Indy’s high pick-and-rolls invited more defenders to Oladipo’s airspace, and instead of forcing the issue, Oladipo trusted his teammates to pick up the slack.
Bogdanovic ended up being the recipient of numerous open looks, and he absolutely delivered, shooting 11-of-15 from the field, including a scintillating 7-of-9 from the three-point line. Bogdanovic finished the night with a game-best +17, and also notable was his defense on James on the other end. Bogey didn’t quite shut down James, but he slowed him down for enough of the night to make a difference. (The game, after all, came down to one final shot—a J.R. Smith heave at the buzzer.)
Oladipo finished with only 18 points on 5-of-15 shooting, but he compensated for his poor shooting effort by barrelling his way to the free-throw line eight times.
No one else truly stepped up for Cleveland besides James, especially as the Pacers’ defense tightened in the second half. Kevin Love had an efficient 19 points, but that should be expected from a max player. The only other Cavalier in double figures was George Hill, but he only played 23 minutes. Meanwhile, Jeff Green, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Korver combined to shoot 1-of-10 from three. As a team, Cleveland shot only 31.3% from downtown, and the offense absolutely cratered in the second half, scoring only 33 points.
The story of this series really is the Pacers’ defense. The Cavs had an offensive rating of 98.8 Friday, 11.8 points per 100 possessions worse than their mark during the regular season. Cleveland’s offensive rating is under 100 for the postseason, ahead of only the Timberwolves in the 16-team field. James is doing his part, but the difference has been in the margins. Oladipo and James have been equally as impactful this series, but Indiana’s role players have stepped up in a way Cleveland’s haven’t. (The Kyrie Irving-shaped elephant in the room is that the Cavs had a player like this last year.)
The Cavs, of course, are running out of time to figure this out. Game 4 will not be easy, though James is no stranger to pressure-packed situations in Indiana. Still, he’ll need help. Whether it’s Love dominating a matchup, J.R. getting hot early or Hood turning the corner, the Cavs need someone to match the contributions being made by the Pacers’ role players.
James is undeniably capable of winning a playoff game by himself. Maybe even a series. But the Pacers are much better than the first-round fodder James has been used to playing the last few seasons. Oladipo is commanding superstar attention, while his supporting cast is taking advantage of the opportunities he creates.
Game 4 is Sunday.