Be honest: When the Pacers quietly signed Bojan Bogdanovic this past summer, you asked the following question: Huh? And then you followed it up with this question: This is the guy Indiana is bringing in to replace Paul George? Bogdanovic was so unknown, and continues to remain so largely unknown, that when I turned to Google last night for additional info on the Pacers' Game 3 hero against the Cavs, I noticed that Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is no relation to Bojan and plays for the Sacramento Kings, was trending.
Around here, though, we know who Bojan Bogdanovic is and we know that without his game-long and fourth-quarter heroics, the Pacers would be staring at a two games to one series deficit. All the Croatian sensation did Friday night was lead the Pacers to a 92-90 victory, scoring a career-high 30 points, hitting a franchise-tying seven 3-pointers and scoring 15 fourth-quarter points while doing a solid job against LeBron James (28 points on 10-for-22 shooting).
"Incredible," Victor Oladipo was saying of Bogdanovic who, along with Thaddeus Young, set the defensive tone in the second half. "He did an incredible job for us on both ends of the floor. When he's playing like that, it opens it up for everybody."
Listen, it's one thing to spend every game turning black-and-blue while bumping bodies with the Cavaliers' brawny legend…but to turn around and still have the energy to score 30 points on the other end of the floor on 7-of-9 shooting from three? To finish with a plus-18 rating in a 2-point victory?
To tie folks like Reggie Miller, Chuck Person and Paul George for the franchise's most playoff threes? That's astonishing. And it's the kind of effort the Pacers needed, and will continue to need, if they're going to vanquish the stunned and reeling Cavaliers.
"Are you more proud of your offense tonight or your defense?" Bogdanovic was asked.
"Defense, definitely, because everybody thinks before that season that I can't play defense," he said. "I'm not saying I play great defense, but I work hard to make it tough for each offensive player I've guarded."
It's not like Bogdanovic came completely out of nowhere. He was, after all, the Pacers' second-leading scorer this season. He's had nights like this before – OK, not exactly like this – but he's been scoring and defending well all season. It's just that when you think of the Pacers, you think of Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner or…well, that's about it. Bogdanovic gave Indiana what James' Cavs' teammates failed to give The King: production when it mattered down the stretch.
This is not a some kind of accident, either. This is the residue of hard work. During an early-season conversation, Bogdanovic told me he spent the entire offseason working on his lateral movement and his defense in general. He knew he was coming to Indiana to be a starter, to "replace" George, and he knew he needed to be more well-rounded, needed to be more than just a long-range marksman.
For too long Friday night, Indiana allowed itself to do something they haven't often done this season: They got over-emotional and let the officials get into their heads. On Oladipo's buzzer-beating three-ball try at the end of the half, he slammed the floor in anger when he failed to get a whistle when Larry Nance Jr. stepped on his foot.
The conversation with the official, Josh Tiven, continued for nearly a minute, Oladipo gesturing angrily.
Turned out, he had a reason to be angry.
After half, though, Tiven sought out Oladipo.
"First, I apologized for showing emotion – I want to win – but my emotions kind of got the best of me," Oladipo said. "He understood he missed the call. It happens sometimes…Neither one of us took it personally. That just shows the growth of the players and the referees in the league."
Then they stopped playing the victim and victimized the Cavaliers, who scored 12 points, shot 5-of-19 and committed seven turnovers in a noxious third quarter. They scored 33 the entire second half.
"We manned up, is all," said Lance Stephenson. "When we get the crowd going, they (the Cavaliers) start panicking and they start getting nervous."
Understand, when you play James, you not only have to beat him and his team, you have to take the officiating out of it. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, nor am I one to harp on officiating in wins or losses (save for the occasional egregious mistake), but the Pacers know that while it might not be five against eight, as fans will insist, it's best to take all the guesswork out of the equation. LeBron is LeBron. This is a stars' league. He's earned it.
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"I kind of expected coming into this series that calls wouldn't go our way," Darren Collison said. "That's not to say anything about the refs, but we kind of know they (the Cavs) are going to get the benefit of the doubt. Everybody sees it…We don't want to put ourselves in a position where we're complaining on every single call. But we don't want to put the game in the referees' hands."
This is a tough-minded group, one that has been fighting back from deficits all season. Down 17 at the half? Child's play. The Cavs came into the game with a 40-0 record when leading heading into the fourth quarter; make that 40-1 now. And suddenly the Cavaliers find themselves in a spot where they absolutely, positively have to win Game 4 Sunday night at Bankers Life.
Offensively, the Pacers adjusted beautifully. The first half, the Cavs trapped Oladipo on the high pick-and-roll – and really, whenever he had the ball – and made it difficult for the Pacers to run mistake-free offense as they finished with 20 turnovers. In the second half, the Pacers spread the floor and let Oladipo go to work, especially on J.R. Smith, who was dealing with foul issues. When the Cavs did trap, Oladipo did a much better job of moving the ball, which led to several 4-on-3 situations that ended with the ball in Bogdanovic's sure hands.
At which point, Slick Leonard was yelling "Boom, Baby" time and time again.
"I've been a scorer all my life, so I changed my role here," Bogdanovic said. "Then when I saw those shots go in, I got extra energy to be even more aggressive on the defensive end…Just trying to get into his (James') knees, trying to push him to catch the ball farther away from the basket…You just have to try and force him to take tough shots."
The Legend of Bogey lives.