INDIANAPOLIS -- Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers had to rally from 26 points down to beat the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of their first-round series at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. On Friday, it was the Cavs' turn to blow a double-digit lead, as the Pacers came back from 17 down to go up 2-1 on the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions.
JR Smith rebounded a missed Darren Collison free throw and advanced it up the floor, but his 3-point attempt from a few steps past the half-court line fell short at the buzzer to give the Pacers the 92-90 win.
LeBron James came into this series 12-0 all-time in the first round and having won 21 straight first-round games, as his teams in Cleveland and Miami had made it to seven straight NBA Finals.
Now, he'll need three wins in the final four games against the Pacers -- if it even goes that far -- just to assure a second-round berth.
After taking a 17-point lead into halftime, Cleveland scored just 12 points in the third quarter. It was a dreadful 5-for-19 showing, with seven turnovers, and by the time it was over, the Cavs saw their cushion cut to just six points heading into the fourth. Cleveland had been 40-0 this season, including the playoffs, when leading entering the fourth quarter.
"I just thought their physicality," said Cavs coach Ty Lue when asked to explain the turnaround. "Denying the basketball, getting into us so when we catch the ball we're back on our heels. The pressure. I thought it just hurt us, man."
A four-point play by Bojan Bogdanovic midway through the final frame gave Indiana its first lead since the score was 13-12. On the next possession, Bogdanovic hit another 3-pointer to put the Pacers up by seven with 5 minutes, 40 seconds remaining.
James cut it to one less than two minutes later with back-to-back 3s. He finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
After James tied the game with a free throw at 84-84, the Pacers went on a 5-0 spurt, again punctuated by a Bogdanovic 3.
Kevin Love frantically rebounded a James missed 3 and hit a corner 3 of his own to cut Indiana's lead to just one with 7.6 seconds left. Cleveland fouled Collison after a timeout, leading to the final sequence and Smith's miss.
"It's definitely a game of runs, but at the same time when you give up a 17-point lead in the playoffs, it's tough, regardless if you're on the road or at home," Smith said. "I'm stunned, but it is what it is. That's why it's a seven-game series."
Love, who finished with 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting, took only one shot after halftime before that late desperation 3-pointer.
Hill, back in his home state of Indiana, was a revelation early: He scored nine of his 13 points in the first quarter. (This after scoring 12 points combined in Games 1 and 2.) But only two of Friday's 13 points came after halftime after his back locked up and he had to be subbed out. Lue lamented that part of the Cavs' second-half downfall was having to rely on James at the point too much.
Other role players showed up for the Cavs too. Just not consistently enough.
Green, perhaps the most maligned Cavalier to start the series, dunked on Myles Turner early in the fourth quarter after Turner had canned a jumper to cut the Cavs' lead to four a possession before.
Hood, right there next to Green in terms of criticism after Games 1 and 2, scored eight points on 4-for-8 shooting overall, but was just 1-for-3 in the fourth.
The Cavs as a team scored 33 points after halftime. Bogdanovic scored 19 after halftime by himself en route to 30 for the game.
"He had it going," James said of the Croatian forward. "He was shooting from deep. ... We kind of allowed him to see the ball go through the rim. And then in transition, he felt like he had some mismatches in transition, and he was attacking the rim. He's definitely capable of doing that."
Bogdanovic went 11-for-15 overall and 7-for-9 from 3, giving a major lift for a Pacers team that got just 18 points on 5-for-15 shooting from its All-Star Victor Oladipo.
James now has 98 points in the series for the Cavs. His next closest teammate is Love with 43, followed by Smith with 28. He had no interest in comparing his effort to that of the rest of his team, however.
"There's a lot of game left to be played," he said. "We haven't play as well as we would've liked to have played as a team in this series so far, even with the Game 2 victory. We've got to regroup and figure out how we can be better in Game 4."
Cleveland, playing with a vastly different roster before revamping its team at the trade deadline, also blew a 22-point lead to lose in Indiana earlier in the season.
Friday was the second-largest blown lead by a James playoff team in his career, falling four points shy of the 21-point advantage the Cavs couldn't take care of in Game 3 of last year's conference finals against the Boston Celtics.