The Pacers leave Saturday for a season-long, five-game road trip, but before they left, they treated their fans to one of the most memorable games of the season on Friday night.
After falling into a 22-point deficit after a dismal first quarter, Indiana mounted a magical rally against their long-time nemesis LeBron James and the Cavaliers, holding on for a dramatic 97-95 win.
Indiana initially took the lead in the closing seconds of the third quarter and moved in front for good on Victor Oladipo's 3-pointer with 2:10 remaining in the fourth quarter.
After a scoreless two minutes of game time, the Cavaliers had the ball in James' hands with a chance to win in the closing seconds. After catching the ball in the right corner, the 6-foot-9 four-time MVP tried to drive by the 6-foot Darren Collison, but stepped out of bounds on the baseline.
"Praying," Collison recalled with a laugh when asked what was going through his head when he switched onto James. "Just trying to guard him the best way I can and hopefully something happens."
Collison made one of two foul shots with 1.4 seconds to play, missing the first but making the second. The Cavaliers — out of timeouts — were forced to inbound from under their own basket and though Kevin Love connected with James on a 3/4-court pass, his desperation fadeaway didn't go and the Pacers (22-20) hung on for the win.
"That was probably one of the best passes I've ever seen," Pacers forward Thaddeus Young, who was guarding James on the final play, said after the game. "I'm very pleased that we got a good contest on it, but not pleased that he actually got a look off."
Indiana has now won all three of its games against the Cavaliers (26-16) so far this season.
"Huge team win," Oladipo said. "We've just got to continue to keep building on it. We grinded it out. We (were) down, we stayed with it, fought through adversity. We showed a little resilience and we've just got to keep going."
The Cavaliers entered Friday's contest seemingly in disarray. They had dropped six of their last eight games, including a 28-point defeat on Monday in Minnesota and a 34-point drubbing on Thursday in Toronto.
But Cleveland apparently rediscovered its form overnight, as the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions dominated the first quarter on Friday. After Oladipo's jumper gave Indiana an early 6-4 lead, the Cavaliers reeled off 22 unanswered points.
The Pacers' offense was anemic for much of that stretch, going scoreless for 6:58. The Blue & Gold scored a season-low 12 points in the opening frame — going just 6-for-22 from the field and committing six turnovers — and faced a 22-point deficit heading into the second quarter.
Indiana got a nice offensive boost from its bench to start the next frame, particularly from veteran big man Al Jefferson. The 33-year-old put on a low post clinic in the opening minutes of the second quarter, connecting on four consecutive shots to give the hosts some much-needed offensive rhythm.
The Pacers also mounted a strong close to the half, outscoring Cleveland 15-7 over the final 5:30 to make it a 58-44 game heading into the break.
The home team came out with a newfound fire to start the second half, scoring the first 11 points of the third quarter to trim the deficit to three points just 2:50 into the half.
"We just kept attacking, attacking," Collison said. "I think the first we (weren't) settled down...but once we started getting a little bit of flow, we started getting more comfortable."
But James knocked down a 3-pointer on the ensuing Cavs possesion and Cleveland slowly built its lead back up to 12 points.
The Pacers responded in kind with a second charge. Another 11-0 run made it a 72-71 game, and after James' layup, Lance Stephenson's 3-pointer tied the game at 74 with 1:48 remaining in the third quarter. The Pacers then took their first lead since the opening minutes on Collison's corner jumper with 10.1 seconds left in the frame, and — rather stunningly — carried that lead into the fourth quarter.
The Cavs scored the first four points of the final frame to move back in front, but the Pacers retook the lead a couple minutes later, thanks to Stephenson.
The mercurial Pacers guard drilled down a three over Kyle Korver on one end to give Indiana an 83-82 lead. Then on the other end, he poked the ball out of James' hands and out of bounds then bumped chests with James. After the referees seemingly reestablished order, a clearly frustrated James gave Stephenson a forearm shove, resulting in a technical foul and an Oladipo free throw.
"I was surprised," Stephenson said about the shove. "That was the first time he really showed he was mad...If I got under his skin, it worked in our favor."
After the game, James admitted he lost his cool.
"I should have known," James said. "I've known since high school, it's not the guy who tells the joke that gets caught, it's the guy who laughs. They caught me on a retaliation. But he played well tonight."
Love's 3-pointer with 6:57 remaining put the visitors back in front, and James followed with two layups to push the margin to five. Cleveland remained in front for the next several minutes until Oladipo's 3-pointer with 2:10 to play gave the Pacers a 96-95 lead.
Collison led five Pacers players in double figures with 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Oladipo added 19 points, Young had 12 points and seven rebounds, while both Stephenson (16 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists) and Domantas Sabonis (12 points and 15 boards) recorded double-doubles.
James led the Cavs with 27 points, eight rebounds, and 11 assists. Love added 21 points and 10 rebounds in the loss.
The Pacers return to action on Sunday night, when they visit the Phoenix Suns to open their Western Conference road trip.
The Pacers outscored Cleveland 32-16 in a pivotal third quarter. Indiana went 13-for-24 from the field while holding the Cavs to 6-of-21 shooting in the period.
Sabonis' double-double was his team-leading ninth of the season. Stephenson accomplished the feat for the second time.
The Cavaliers finished with 39 fastbreak points, 10 more than the previous season high by a Pacers opponent and 14 more than their own season high. Cleveland had 34 fastbreak points in the first half alone, but just five after halftime.
The Pacers outscored Cleveland by 14 points with Stephenson on the floor, the best plus/minus mark of any player in Friday's game.
It was a tale of two halves when it came to turnovers on Friday night. Cleveland scored 17 points on 11 Indiana giveaways in the first half, but did not score on just three Pacers turnovers after halftime. The Pacers only forced the Cavaliers into four turnovers over the first two quarters, but scored 15 points on eight Cleveland giveaways in the second half.
"I really credit my teammates, they played phenomenal tonight. Everybody stepped up and played well. They definitely did a great job of picking me up and continuing to motivate me to keep going, staying aggressive." -Oladipo on his game-winning shot
"It's always an emotional game when we play Cleveland. I was just talking about that at the beginning of the game, how sweet it would be to beat Cleveland for a third time. Of course, it's another game, it's always an emotional game when you're playing against LeBron. It was the same way when he was in Miami." -Pacers head coach Nate McMillan
"It's great because you know the coaches are challenging you and it's tough to guard LeBron. So, whoever has the guts to go into him and play him hard, I figured this is the game you can do it. It just happened to be on our side and we got the win." -Stephenson on his defense on James
"The first half I thought we really had a good punch offensively pushing things, pushing the basketball, getting points in transition. We came out in the third quarter just walking around. Could have been a little tired, but we really didn’t attack in the third quarter." -Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue
"We gave ourselves a chance to win the game at the end, but we caught some tough breaks. We definitely played better than we did last night, and we gave ourselves a chance to win a basketball game at a place where we...it seems like we always come in here (Indiana) off of a back-to-back and we haven't played so well here." -Love
Friday's win ensured the Pacers won the season series against the Cavaliers with LeBron James for the first time since the 2004-05 season. James has spent two stints with the Cavs, playing in Cleveland from 2003-10 before departing for Miami for four seasons. He returned to the Cavaliers for the 2014-15 campaign.
The Pacers open their five-game road trip in Phoenix on Sunday, Jan. 14 at 8:00 PM ET.
After a five-game road trip, the Pacers return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to host Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 7:00 PM ET. Find Tickets »