KRAVITZ: The question was 'Should they tank?' Now the question is, 'Can they finally beat LeBron?'

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) passes against Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner (33) in the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - This is happening, a Game 7 in Cleveland Sunday afternoon, and yet it shouldn’t be happening. More to the point, it wasn’t supposed to happen, any of it – the 48 regular-season wins, the rise of Victor Oladipo, the growth of Domantas Sabonis, the career years from Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison, the Pacers not only reaching the playoffs but pushing the prohibitively favored Cavaliers to a seventh and final game.

How could anybody have expected anything remotely close to this when Paul George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, told Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard that George was not going to re-sign to stay in Indianapolis at season’s end? The 2017-18 season was going to be an ugly, 82-game slog toward the NBA Lottery. Oladipo, we figured, was an overpaid underachiever. Sabonis was a throw-in. Bogdanovic was nothing more than a Euro-sniper. Collison was a nice, solid veteran but nothing to shout home about. You went down the line, looked at the Pacers completely revamped roster and thought, “Meh.’’ Even the architects of this team, notably Pritchard, thought the Pacers would end up with a win total in the 30’s.

We were asking, “Should they tank?’’

Now we’re asking a very different question:

“After four failed attempts to beat LeBron James in the playoffs, could this fifth time be the one when the Pacers not only exorcise their personal demons, but chase James out of Cleveland and, quite likely, the Eastern Conference?’’

For the Pacers, who have been like Sisyphus rolling the rock up Mount LeBron, this is similar to the Colts and the New England Patriots. Every year, the Patriots not only broke the Colts’ hearts, they stomped on it. Then came the end of the 2006 season and the AFC Championship Game comeback, and to this day, every player on that team will tell you that beating New England was the season’s highlight and not beating the Bears in the Super Bowl.

I told you when the series began that this is the most vulnerable team James has ever led into the post-season, and that has been borne out. Kyle Korver has had two good games and three invisible games. J.R. Smith, who has had to chase around Oladipo, has been an offensive non-factor. The new guys – Larry Nance, Jr., Jordan Clarkson, George Hill and Rodney Hood – have been quiet. And then there’s Kevin Love, the $100 million man, who has been completely neutralized, a bit by injuries to his thumb and head and a lot by Thaddeus Young, who has been accurately described as the “Draymond Green of the East.’’

How poorly has Love played? He’s scored fewer than 10 points in three of the first-round games, and is averaging 11 points per game on 32 percent shooting with 15 turnovers. (Oh yeah, Love has been the Cavs’ second-leading scorer in this series.)

“He’s a huge part of our success or our non-success,’’ James said of Love after Game 6. “Obviously we try to go to him, we want to go to him. Obviously, we can’t make the shots for him. He has to step up and knock those down. Those are things you can’t control…’’

What this series has come down to is this: Can James, who may or may not be human, carry this sorry supporting cast to the second round? However Game 7 plays out, James has to know, this is not a championship team. Hasn’t been all season, and it certainly hasn’t shown that kind of potential in this series which, with a couple of breaks going the Pacers’ way, already could be over. That’s got to wear on James mentally and physically, especially after a season in which he played all 82 games and led the league in minutes played.

And then there’s the pressure of this Game 7. True, the Cavaliers have far more Game 7 experience than the Pacers, have that championship pedigree; the Pacers are relative newbies to this situation. That said, all the pressure, to the degree that sort of thing matters, rests on James’ and the Cavaliers’ shoulders. They’re the big-budget team that’s built (they thought) to win championships. They’re the team that employs the best player on the planet. They’re the ones who are not only playing to keep their season alive, but to keep James in Cleveland. Understand, this could be James’ last game in Cleveland should he opt to take his talents elsewhere at season’s end.

The Pacers? Been saying it since before Game 1. House money. They can play free and easy and without a care in the world. Win or lose, they will walk away from this season having accomplished something nobody in his right mind could have expected. Win or lose, they will know they are starting to build something special here in Indiana, bolstered by the core of Oladipo, Sabonis, Myles Turner and others.

Just don’t try selling that “all-the-pressure-is-on-the-Cavs’’ narrative to James.

“I feel like that’s your opinion,’’ James said, answering a reporter’s question after Game 6. “I mean, we’re a newer team than they are, if you look at it. They’ve been together all year. Our team just got put together in late February…’’

It is happening and will happen Sunday afternoon, and nobody could have imagined it would come down to this. Recent history says the home team wins Game 7 three of every four times, but there’s no sense from the Pacers that they are satisfied with having made a series of this while establishing a foothold in the national consciousness.

Everything we thought we knew about this team coming into the season? That’s all tossed in the garbage by now. It’s 48 more minutes, and maybe more, and if you aren’t giving the Pacers a real shot by now, you simply haven’t been watching very closely.

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