INDIANAPOLIS – Following a surprisingly successful 2017-18 season, the Indiana Pacers (48-34) will get the same first round opponent in the Eastern Conference playoffs as the 2016-17 Pacers: the Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32).
With the Cavs comes a familiar postseason foe for Indy in LeBron James. The Pacers were swept by Cleveland in the opening round of last season’s playoffs and have been eliminated by a James-led team in four of their last five postseason appearances.
Game 1 is slated to get underway on Sunday afternoon from Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
The Pacers, of course, look much different than when they were swept by Cleveland to end their 2016-17 campaign. Just six players on this season’s playoff team were around during last season’s series.
Paul George was dealt to Oklahoma City in July 2017 for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Starters Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic were picked up in free agency.
Oladipo turned in a career year and was named a NBA All-Star for the first time, averaging 23.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Sabonis, in just his second year in the NBA, wasn’t far off from averaging a double-double at 11.6 points and 7.7 boards a game.
Collison, who played in Indiana between 2010-12, even led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage at 46.8%.
Indiana won the season series, three games to one, but all four contests came before the Cavaliers revamped their roster at the Feb. 8 trade deadline.
Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Dwayne Wade were among the players Cleveland let go of in favor of new Cavs Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and even a former Pacer in George Hill. As a result, the Blue and Gold will be facing a much different Cavalier squad than they defeated three out of four times in the regular season.
Defensively, the Cavs are near the bottom of the NBA. Cleveland gives up an average of 109.9 points a night, good for 26th in a 30-team league. Indiana puts up 105.6 points per game and likes to run, something they will try to do against a Cavalier club that doesn’t excel with the ball out of their hands.
At the end of the day, however, everything with Cleveland comes down to James. At age 33, he is in the midst of arguably one of his best seasons yet. The 15-year NBA veteran is averaging 27.7 points, 9.2 assists and 8.7 rebounds a game.
James has never lost a first round playoff series in his storied career, but many believe this 2018 Cavs playoffs team calls back to a weaker 2007 Cleveland squad that James drug to the NBA Finals.
In Miami, James had Wade and Chris Bosh aid him in winning two rings. Up until this season, James had Kyrie Irving by his side in Cleveland. Kevin Love remains a part of this Cavalier roster, but the general feeling is all of the heavy lifting will fall upon James.
When thinking of James taking on the Pacers, one name usually comes to mind: Lance Stephenson. From blowing in James’ ear during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals to baiting him into a technical foul in a regular season game earlier this season, Stephenson’s antics are always worth keeping an eye on. Especially on a national stage.
Stephenson has proven to be a solid defender on James, too, even though truly locking down the four-time MVP may be near impossible. Slowing down the King a bit is probably a more accurate goal for Stephenson and the Pacers to shoot for.
If the Pacers upset Cleveland and hand James his earliest exit ever from the NBA Playoffs, this may just be a prime year to steal a series. And it would come in a year that most believed Indiana would be no where near the postseason.
Series schedule (* – if necessary)
Game 1: Indiana at Cleveland – Sunday, April 15, 3:30 p.m.
Game 2: Indiana at Cleveland – Wednesday, April 18, 7:00 p.m.
Game 3: Cleveland at Indiana – Friday, April 20, 7:00 p.m.
Game 4: Cleveland at Indiana – Sunday, April 22, 8:30 p.m.
*Game 5: Indiana at Cleveland – Wednesday, April 25, TBA
*Game 6: Cleveland at Indiana – Friday, April 27, TBA
*Game 7: Indiana at Cleveland – Sunday April 29, TBA