<
>

The Pacers have a plan, but can they stop LeBron James?

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan might face a classic choice many have confronted over the past decade: Do you double-team LeBron James?

The Pacers' game plan through the first five games has been to play James within their standard defensive system. They have altered pick-and-roll schemes at times but generally have played James straight up, relying on conventional help defense to try to make things tough while also taking care of his teammates.

The series has stayed close, but James has tortured Indiana yet again. He's averaging 35 points, 11.4 rebounds and 8 assists while also shooting 55 percent. In Game 5, he crushed the Pacers' interior defense for 12 baskets within 5 feet of the rim on his way to 44 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers took a 3-2 series lead.

Indiana has double-teamed James on only 16 plays in the first five games, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, which is less than 4 percent of the 449 plays in which he has been involved on offense. The Pacers brought only one double-team in Game 5 and it was in the first quarter.

McMillan clearly doesn't favor using an extra defender to force the ball out of James' hands because it leaves others open. When the double has happened, though, James and the Cavs have struggled, mostly because the Cleveland roster has been in a collective slump throughout the series, shooting just 38 percent overall and 32 percent from 3-point range.

The sample sizes are limited, but over the past four games the Cavs are 1-of-10 shooting with a turnover in the possessions when James has seen a double-team. The data at least makes a strategy adjustment worth considering.

"They've changed their lineup and put 3-point shooters around him," McMillan said. "Basically what they're saying is if you help, we're going to shoot the 3-ball. Which is what they want to do anyway. If you don't help, he's going to drive the ball to the basket."

It's a poison-picking scenario, which is commonplace with high-level stars in all levels of the game. Interestingly, the Cavs have used a trapping defense on Pacers star Victor Oladipo, most aggressively in Games 3 and 4. Oladipo has slumped the past three games, shooting a combined 12-of-49.

While he wasn't willing to give away game-plan adjustments before Game 6, at the very least McMillan said his team has to limit James' space. He says he believes his defenders have been allowing James to create angles to get momentum to the basket and then been sluggish in helping one another. As a result, James has had room to maneuver.

If nothing else, expect the Pacers' defenders to hang into the paint area a bit more in Game 6.

"We didn't do a good job of trying to keep him in front," McMillan said. "We held the perimeter and were too concerned about 3-point shooters and allowed him to play in the paint most of [Game 5]. That is not what we want to do, to give him room to operate and go to his second and third moves in the paint. We can do a better job."

Over the years, the results have been mixed when trying the double-team with James in the playoffs. In the 2015 Finals, for example, the Warriors started throwing double-teams in Game 4 after James averaged 41 points over the first three games. James scored only 20 points as the Warriors withstood 28 points from his safety valve, Timofey Mozgov, and Golden State won easily to change the momentum of the series.

In 2007, James had a 48-point Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when he got 33 shots attacking mostly single coverage. The Detroit Pistons swarmed him to force the ball out of his hands in Game 6 and he got only 11 shots. But Daniel Gibson hit a flurry of 3-pointers and scored 31 points and the Cavs won the series.

There are many other examples, and the success rates aren't great. James has been phenomenal in closeout games, having won 11 in a row. He's familiar with what happens when an opponent is desperate.

The Pacers are projecting that they're not desperate, but the time has come to explore all options when dealing with their franchise nemesis.

"The series ain't over," Oladipo said after Game 5. "You got to win four games for the series to be over, right? So we got a chance to win. ... We're looking forward to that opportunity."