Paul George hit a massive 3-pointer to cut the Cleveland Cavaliers’ lead to a single point with 40 seconds left in the Indiana Pacers’ Game 1 loss in Cleveland on Saturday afternoon. That was the last positive thing to happen for Indiana in this game. They would falter down the stretch due to some incredibly confusing coaching decisions from Nate McMillan.
After George’s 3-pointer, Cleveland inbounded the ball to run another 24 seconds off the clock. At this point, Indiana had one timeout remaining and wasn’t in the bonus; Cleveland had two timeouts and was in the bonus.
The Cavaliers ran one of their favorite actions: a 3-1 pick-and-roll with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. This set forces a switch almost every time, as there’s no way to contain both James and Irving without doing so. James took a dribble to his left and pulled up for a 3-pointer that has served him very well this year, but it rimmed out. Lance Stephenson picked up the rebound and the Pacers immediately called timeout.
Stephenson rebounded with about 20 seconds on the game clock and the Pacers were down one. George was right under the basket to get the ball from Stephenson and bring the ball up, so why not let him do that with the knowledge that the timeout is still available if George can’t find anything quickly? McMillan was going to go to George at the end of the game anyway, but getting him the ball in space and attacking downhill seems like a better option than the inevitable fadeaway jumper at the end of the game.
Additionally, even if George didn’t have an opportunity to strike quickly, maybe the Cavaliers would have been scrambling defensively and he would have found a better matchup for the final shot of the game. James and Irving were getting back on defense; perhaps George could have worked a quick 3-1 pick-and-roll of his own with Teague to get a shot over Irving. The timeout immediately cut off all of those options.
The timeout, which allowed Cleveland to set up its defense and its preferred matchup on George, advanced the ball to the frontcourt, where Indiana inbounded the ball to George near the halfcourt line. George was planning to hold for the final shot, but James, who was matched up with Stephenson, sprinted out to George to double and get the ball out of his hands. This was a fantastic move by James and the Cavaliers; one that the Pacers clearly weren’t expecting. George drove left and swung the ball back to C.J. Miles on the right side of the floor, where he was fouled by Richard Jefferson:
Remember, Indiana wasn’t in the bonus, so Miles didn’t go to the line for two free throws to give the Pacers the lead. They simply had to inbound the ball again and try for a final shot to win the game. However, this foul did wonders for Indiana because it showed them exactly what Cleveland had planned defensively and gave them an opening to make substitutions to take advantage of it. James was going to double off of Stephenson, so perhaps putting a more dangerous offensive player in the game in Stephenson’s spot would throw Cleveland’s plan off and help George get open. McMillan didn’t change anything, running the same 1-4 flat isolation for George at the top of the key, as if he didn’t just see the Cavaliers blow it up.
James, seeing that McMillan trotted out the same personnel as ten seconds prior, left Stephenson even earlier to double George, who had to give up the ball to Miles. Stephenson was briefly open underneath the basket, but with J.R. Smith and James draped all over him and the other three Cleveland defenders in a quasi-zone under the basket, there was no way for George to fit the ball in to Stephenson. When Miles caught the ball, there ere still five seconds left on the clock, but the Pacers had no idea what to do if the ball wasn’t in George’s hands. Stephenson, Myles Turner, and Jeff Teague were all being guarded by two Cavaliers, but none of the three made a cut that would open them up for another pass from Miles, despite there being enough time for a pass or two before the final shot.
While brazenly leaving Stephenson to double George was certainly an unexpected move from James and the Cavaliers, the Pacers literally got to see what they were going to do, had the opportunity to counter, and chose not to do so. There are coaching decisions with which many may not agree, such as not fouling when up three or calling a timeout too early, but seeing a defense succeed and not changing anything despite there being a dead ball has to go down as one of the largest coaching brain farts at the end of a playoff game in recent NBA history.