KRAVITZ:  Pacers’ Game 3 choke job against the Cavs is one for the history books

Indiana Pacers forward Paul George reacts as the Pacers lost the lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half of Game 3 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Thursday, April 20, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - All you could hear in the Pacers’ postgame locker room was the sound of aerosol deodorant being applied, which seemed appropriate given the stench the home team left behind. You want to talk about epic, historic, unimaginable gag jobs, yakking up a 25-point halftime lead and losing Game 3 to the Cavaliers, 119-114? Shoot, even the Atlanta Falcons were embarrassed by that second half origami act by the mentally soft Pacers.

Take this for data, to semi-quote Memphis coach David Fizdale:

The Pacers’ collapse was the largest in NBA postseason history. Not second-largest. Not third-largest. No, the largest.

At halftime, the folks at ESPN Stats & Info calculated that the Cavaliers had a 1.2 percent chance of winning this game.

For one half, it was a fever dream, something nearly surreal, the Pacers setting every kind of franchise record imaginable for offensive efficiency. The Pacers led 74-49, shot 57 percent from the field, 59 percent from three-point range, had 17 assists on 25 field goals and generally made the Cavs look silly and disinterested.

There was Paul George, going for a franchise-record-tying 21 points in the second quarter, including 16 of Indiana’s 18 in one stretch. There was Myles Turner, throwing down a one-hand slam over Tristan Thompson, who has pushed him around most of this series. There was Lance Stephenson, knocking down a corner three, then turning to the crowd and howling, “This is MY house!’’

It was perfect basketball, beautiful, a sight to behold.

“It was effortless,’’ George said later. “Nobody was thinking, no thought process, everything was just happening. We were feeding off the crowd and one another’s energy. It was natural…The first half, we did a great job of attacking early in the offense, getting it up early and exploring. I thought we slowed the pace, slowed the game down and it gives a team momentum.’’

Then, the mental lightweights that they are, the Pacers fell apart in a million little pieces. They got outscored 70-40 in the second half. After shooting 57 percent in the first half and setting a franchise record for points, the Pacers shot a meager 25.5 percent in the second half. George didn’t score in the third quarter, largely while being guarded by Iman Shumpert. Lance Stephenson went cold from the perimeter. Jeff Teague stopped probing and attacking. Turner, who has been overwhelmed in this series, went back in his shell, finishing with a weak 3-of-12 with five rebounds in almost 31 minutes.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be surprised. This is who the Pacers are, who they’ve been all season. Soft physically, soft mentally. From one night to the next, you never knew who would show up, what kind of energy the team would bring. This particular night, they were the Globetrotters in the first half and the Washington Generals in the second half.

It was as if they were trying to run the clock out, a football team playing prevent defense – something those of us in Indianapolis know something about. But then that 25-point halftime lead turned to 15. And then 10. And then five and then…oh Lord. And the crazy thing is, it wasn’t the Big Three who put this first-round playoff series on the precipice. No, it was James and a bunch of bench guys, notably Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Deron Williams.

There was James, knocking down a three from Fortville, followed almost immediately by a three-ball from Beech Grove. There was James on straight-line drives, blowing past Thaddeus Young or C.J. Miles or whoever happened to be impersonating a defender. Always, it was James, scoring or setting up teammates, finishing with the ridiculous stat line of 41 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists and two blocked shots. He scored or assisted on – get this – 73 points, the most in a playoff game in his career.

Yes, give a great deal of credit to the Cavaliers, who changed up their lineups, put James at the point and let him facilitate and find open three-point shooters. But the Pacers were most guilty of this incredible choke job. This one is going to linger. It will be a shock if they find the gumption to win Game 4 here Sunday.

“I don’t really know what to say,’’ Stephenson said. “They responded. They got into us and made us shoot 3’s in the second half. We were up 26 (earlier in the first half) and then it (the comeback) just happened so fast and we didn’t respond. I’m just shocked. We’re all shocked in here.’’

Said George: “Here we are, up (25) to start the second half with a chance to put our foot on their throat, and we came out relaxed. We didn’t pressure up on the ball and we didn’t make anything tough. I thought they had a stretch where they were just walking into wide-open three pointers, and we can’t do that.’’

After the game, we surrounded Teague’s locker, asked him all the usual, expected questions about how this possibly could have happened. Then he was asked about Sunday, a game Nate McMillan said will reveal which players have “character’’ and are willing to fight on to a fifth game in Cleveland.

What Teague then said wasn’t exactly akin to “Remember the Alamo’’ or “Burn the Boats.’’

“We ain’t getting swept,’’ he said softly. “We ain’t getting swept.’’

Ah, but if they do – and it’s hard to imagine James and his teammates will let the Pacers come up for air in their series -- will anybody really miss this team or this season?

Let me answer: No.

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