Leave it to Al Jefferson, the Pacers’ veteran sage, to summarize the situation as succinctly as possible.
“LeBron’s LeBron,” he says. “The name speaks for itself.”
The numbers speak for themselves, too, and that’s the bold-faced challenge facing the Pacers as they prepare for their first-round playoff series with the Cleveland LeBrons. The teams on which James has played, in Cleveland and Miami, have won 21 straight games in the first round, an NBA record. They are 12-0 in first-round series outcomes, have a 48-7 overall first-round record and are 4-0 against the Pacers.
Rebuttals can be made, of course, in the present tense.
James doesn’t have as able a supporting cast as he did on the previous teams that eliminated the Pacers. The Cavs won 11 of their final 13 games, excluding a meaningless season-ending loss to New York when they rested starters, but still are trying to establish chemistry in the wake of their flurry of draft day trades. And, they seem to have internal distractions in the form of Tristan Thompson’s news-making episodes, Tyronn Lue’s health concerns, and the speculation over James’ future with the franchise.
There’s also this: The Pacers played the Cavs close in each of their four playoff games last season, losing by a combined total of 16 points. Based on records, the Cavs aren’t as good as last season and the Pacers are better.
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Still, Cleveland has James, and James remains the best player in the NBA — the best player in the history of the NBA, some argue.
He’s only 33 years old but has logged a lot of minutes and miles since entering the NBA as a 19-year-old out of high school 15 seasons ago. He’s played in 1,366 games, playoffs included, for a total of 53,425 minutes. Stack them together, and he’s played more than 37 days’ worth of NBA games.
The problem for the Pacers is that he’s as good as ever. He played all 82 games for the first time this season, averaging 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, and 1.4 steals. His rebound and assist averages were career-highs and his shooting percentages were above his career norms.
“It’s amazing what he’s doing,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan says.
McMillan doesn’t need to be reminded what James used to do, either, such as in last season’s first-round sweep of the Pacers when James averaged 32.8 points on 54 percent shooting — 45 percent from behind the 3-point line — along with 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, three steals, and two blocks, all of which made his 4.5 turnovers per game seem insignificant.
The players don’t need reminders, either. They’re aware of James’ talents, whether he be playing in South Beach or Cleveland, like they’re aware of oxygen.
“He’s the best in the world for a reason,” Victor Oladipo says.
So how do the Pacers deal with the best? Concede James his numbers and focus on the other Cavaliers, or do their best to keep him from winning games all by himself? Dan Burke, the assistant coach in charge of defense, doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. There are no LeBron Rules the way there supposedly were Jordan Rules for Michael Jordan. James (6-foot-8 and 250 pounds) is two inches taller and 55 pounds heavier than Jordan, just as smart and just as good a shooter.
But a team has to try to do something.
“You always want to keep the best players in front of you and make them shoot over the top,” Burke said Friday following the Pacers’ practice at St. Vincent Center. “Everything we’re doing starts with keeping him in front. He’s such a force with that ball it’s easier said than done. And when he gets going on the run there’s few guys in our league who are going to stand in front of him or take that hit.
“In terms of pure force, he’s a freight train. Jordan was all moves and silk. They both present a problem in how tough they are mentally and how they impose their will on game.”
James is a merely good but not great 3-point shooter, having hit .367 this season. But while Burke wants his defenders to stay in front of James, he doesn’t want to concede open shots, either. There’s a middle ground in which a defender might be able to disrupt James’ rhythm without allowing him to penetrate at will.
“You’ve got to just go after him,” Burke said. “You can’t just give him open ‘dare’ shots. If you allow him to dance and catch a rhythm, he’ll hurt you. Analytically you say you want him to take that three, but I think you get into him, break his rhythm, blur his vision a little. Then if he pulls a long two, that’s the ideal thing.”
Contending with James, however, is a group effort. The draft day trades made the Cavaliers a better 3-point shooting team, with a wider variety of threats and more options. That means the Pacers’ other four defenders not only have to give help when James penetrates, they have to get to James’ passing targets.
“What he thrives on is when he gets his teammates going,” Burke said. “He throws that ball like he’s throwing a dart. It’s unbelievable. If you’re caught spectating and watching him, he’ll throw it by your ear for an open three and then they’re rolling.
“He presents a whole mess of problems.”
Not just physically, either. McMillan compare James to NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, masterminds who win games on a mental plateau that can’t be coached and most other players can’t reach. He recalls James switching himself onto other Pacers coming out of timeouts last year or telling a teammate to go trap a scoring threat and rotating himself to that player’s assignment.
The bottom line: do the best you can, all the way around.
“He’s going to have the ball in his hands 90 percent of the time,” Thaddeus Young said. “He’s going to get his points, he’s going to get his assists, he’s going to get his rebounds. He’s going to do what LeBron does. It’s just a matter of how tough do you make each and every catch, how tough do you make each and every shot, how tough do you make it for him to get up and down the court?
“It’s about going out there and being solid and staying true to what we’re supposed to do on the court each and every time.”
McMillan said Bojan Bogdanovic will start as James’ defender. Young will get some turns as well, too. And, yes, so will Lance Stephenson. McMillan knows the television networks will play up Stephenson’s supposed rivalry with James, reviving the clips of Stephenson giving James the choke sign after a missed free throw in 2012, blowing in James’ ear and touching his face in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, and drawing a technical foul from James this past season.
McMillan appreciates the fact Stephenson isn’t intimidated, but respects lines of sportsmanship that shouldn’t be crossed.
“I’ve been talking to him all season long about that,” McMillan said.
“They’re going to build it up. We respect our opponents, but we don’t want to disrespect (the game) either. And the officials are going to be on it. They’re going to be all over that. As soon as he comes in the game the cameras and the conversation are going toward that.”
So, McMillan will continue to talk to his players about respecting the game and playing the right way. Has Lance listened?
“He’s had his moments,” McMillan says. “I’d say most of the time he does.”
And Lance? Will he try to get under James’ skin?
“I’m just going to play him hard,” Stephenson said. “I think we’re well prepared. Just go out there and try to play hard and get the win.”
Take that however you want.
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Mark Montieth’s book, “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis,” covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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