KRAVITZ: Pacers came out of the NBA’s Witness Protection Program, put on a show that shocked those who haven’t watched them

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CLEVELAND (WTHR) — They wanted the big stage. They wanted the bright lights. They wanted the eyes of Basketball America to gaze upon them so that they might countenance what it is the Indiana Pacers have built and what they’re all about this season. Then, with America watching on network television – thanks, LeBron -- the Pacers came out of the NBA’s Witness Protection Program and put on a show that shocked and amazed those who haven’t watched them all season.

Pacers 98, Cavaliers 80. And except for a couple of late runs by the Cavs, it really never got close, the Pacers running out to a 25-8 lead and then leading wire to wire in a thorough dismantling of Team LeBron.

It’s one thing to come into a place like Cleveland and steal a first-round playoff game, maybe get the Cavs on a bad night, perhaps win on a buzzer-beater, as was nearly the case in Game 1 of last year’s series. Well, the Pacers didn’t steal this one. They took it, grabbed it by the neck and shook the Cavs so hard, they will spend the better part of the next few days wondering how they got dominated so thoroughly.

Surprising? It was only surprising in this sense: LeBron James’ teams had won 21 straight first-round games, and his teams had never – like EVER – lost the first game of a first-round series. The last time James lost a first-round game, it was back in May of 2012, back when we all had flat bellies and lustrous hair. (OK, I’m overstating it, but you know what I’m saying here)

It was not surprising, however, to those of us who’ve watched this largely unknown team become one of the best and biggest surprises in the entire NBA. It was not surprising given the success the Pacers have had on the road this season, not surprising given the fact Indiana finished the regular season as a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency. And when Myles Turner comes to play, and man, did he play Sunday afternoon on both ends of the floor, the Pacers have a team that should send shivers down the spines of every opponent they play.

Like I mentioned the other day in this space, the Cavs are as vulnerable as they’ve ever been through James’ second tenure in Cleveland. At the trade deadline, they brought in four new players and, due to injuries, have not been able to regularly play those new additions together. And the Pacers, who bring the focus and intensity every night, are fully equipped to do what Victor Oladipo suggested on Fan Appreciation Night: Shock the World.

“It’s only one game,’’ Oladipo kept saying. Then he apologized. “Sorry if I’m being redundant.’’

The Cavs aren’t going to take this lying down. The Pacers, as an organization, know that all too well given their history against James-led teams. They’re not finished until their finished, and Indiana knows they will see a different and exponentially better Cleveland team Wednesday night. This is not a group that appreciates getting embarrassed

A message, however, was sent. This is going to be a series, likely a long series, and a competitive one to the bitter end.

“Our guys continue to show growth,’’ Nate McMillan said. “For us, it was a test to see how they’d respond to today’s game. This team has never been together in postseason basketball. We saw growth from our guys again in a hostile environment, going up against one of the better teams in the league. They showed poise. Myles did a solid job of being patient, defending the basket. Victor did a nice job of recognizing matchup and taking advantage of those. This is what we wanted to see from our guys.’’

After the game, somebody asked Oladipo if the Pacers’ early 25-8 surge gave the team belief that they could compete with and even beat the Cavs.

He responded with a look of puzzlement.

“I think we already had that belief,’’ he said. “I believe that we believed that we could win. We came into this game with a mentality that we were going to attack on both ends of the floor. Playing the same way we’ve been playing all year.’’

As for James himself, understand that he’s not going to panic, even after he lost the first first-round game of his remarkable career. As he mentioned after the game, he’s been down three games to one in an NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors and somehow overcame that deficit to win the title in 2016. But he’s got to be just a little bit concerned: This team doesn’t have Kyrie Irving, and George Hill was injured during the game. The new additions? Outside of Larry Nance, Jr., they didn’t do much.

“We had some guys in their first time out there in a playoff setting and like I told you guys, you always ask me, `Is there anything you can tell those guys?’ and I said, `Listen, experience is the best teacher,’ and they got it today,’’ James said.

This result is not a surprise when Darren Collison plays the type of dogged defense and floor game we’ve become accustomed to seeing. This result is not a surprise when Turner hits his first shot, then starts feeling like himself again and becomes a game-changer on both ends of the floor, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds and a massive blocked shot down the stretch. This result is not a surprise when the Pacers are hitting one momentum-crushing shot after another and when they’re playing the kind of defense that limits one of the league’s best offensive teams, one of the league’s best 3-point-shooting teams, to a paltry 80 points.

“We were special defensively,’’ Oladipo said, a massive understatement given the fact Cleveland shot 39 percent from the floor and 8-of-34 from three.

They did just about everything well, which is what it takes to knock off a team with Cleveland’s pedigree. Time and again, they got to the basket with alacrity, noting the lack of a rim protector. Time and again, they helped on James, then did a beautiful job of closing out on Cleveland’s corps of 3-point shooters. Time and again – especially in the bravura first quarter – they turned the Cavaliers over (17 times total), got out on the break and scored. And there were some exclamation points, like Lance Stephenson dunking on Jeff Green’s head and Domantas Sabonis dunking on Cleveland, Lakewood and Strongsville.

But, as Oladipo kept reminding us, it’s just one game. One of the toughest things in sports is beating LeBron James four times, as evidenced by the fact he’s been to seven straight NBA Finals.

They walked onto the big stage, stood under the klieg lights and delivered in a way Basketball America never could have imagined. Here’s the thing, though: They imagined it. They believed it. And now the country has a better idea who these Pacers are, what they’re all about and what they’re capable of doing. Like, um, winning this series.

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