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The Indiana Pacers are very much aware they are about to dive in to the waters of the NBA’s great white shark, LeBron James.
The Pacers know all about James, who led Cleveland to a first-round sweep of them a year ago, and whom they tangle with again in an opening-round series, starting Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena.
“LeBron’s LeBron,” veteran big man Al Jefferson said. “The name speaks for itself.”
As do the results. Consider:
* Teams on which James has played, Cleveland and Miami, have won 21 consecutive playoff games in the first round, an NBA record.
* James’ teams are 12-0 in opening-round series.
* LeBron’s playoff teams with the Cavaliers are Heat are 48-7 (.873) in first-round games.
Dan Burke, Indiana’s assistant coach in charge of defense, perhaps put it best.
Playing all 82 games in a regular season for the first time in his career, James averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists and 1.4 steals per game this season, while leading the NBA in minutes played. His rebound and assist numbers are career-highs and his shooting percentages across the board are better than his career averages.
James did all of that at age 33 and in his 15th season in the NBA. Including playoffs, he has played in 1,366 games, piling up 53,425 minutes.
For perspective, that minutes total equates to more than 37 days’ worth of NBA games.
“It’s amazing what he’s doing,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said.
McMillan and the Pacers saw first-hand last spring what a destroyer James becomes in the postseason as he averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 3 steals and two blocks in leading Cleveland to the four-game sweep. He shot 54 percent from the field in the series, including 45 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Even though Indiana played Cleveland tough, losing the four games by a combined 16 points, it simply had no answer for James.
Burke, the Pacers’ defensive maestro, realizes the enormity of the challenge trying to slow down James presents.
“You always want to keep the best players in front of you and make them shoot over the top,” Burke said after practice Friday. “Everything we’re doing starts with keeping him in front. He’s such a force with that ball it’s easier said than done. And when he gets going on the run there’s few guys in our league who are going to stand in front of him or take that hit.
“In terms of pure force, he’s a freight train. (Michael) Jordan was all moves and silk. They both present a problem in how tough they are mentally and how they impose their will on game.”
While James is not considered to a great 3-point shooter, he did establish an NBA record this season for highest 3-point percentage on shots taken from 28 feet and longer.
“You’ve got to just go after him,” Burke said. “You can’t just give him open ‘dare’ shots. If you allow him to dance and catch a rhythm, he’ll hurt you. Analytically, you say you want him to take that three, but I think you get into him, break his rhythm, blur his vision a little. Then if he pulls a long two, that’s the ideal thing.”
James is even more dangerous when he’s feeding his teammates with perfectly thrown passes, setting them up to fire away from beyond the arc.
“What he thrives on is when he gets his teammates going,” Burke conceded. “He throws that ball like he’s throwing a dart. It’s unbelievable. If you’re caught spectating and watching him, he’ll throw it by your ear for an open three and then they’re rolling.”
The Pacers know James is going to orchestrate and potentially high-octane Cleveland attack.
“He’s going to have the ball in his hands 90 percent of the time,” Thaddeus Young said. “He’s going to get his points, he’s going to get his assists, he’s going to get his rebounds. He’s going to do what LeBron does. It’s just a matter of how tough do you make each and every catch, how tough do you make each and every shot, how tough do you make it for him to get up and down the court?
“It’s about going out there and being solid and staying true to what we’re supposed to do on the court each and every time.”
McMillan said it will fall on the shoulders of Bojan Bogdanovich to begin as the primary defender on James, with Young facing the tall task, as well. Then, of course, there is Lance Stephenson, whose encounters with James in the postseason are a story unto their own.
A quick review:
* 2012 — Giving the choke sign to James after he missed a free throw in 2012.
* 2014 — Blowing in James’ ear and touching his face in the Eastern Conference Finals.
* 2017 — Antagonizing James to the point he drew a technical foul from the Cleveland superstar.
“I’m just going to play him hard,” Stephenson said. “I think we’re well prepared. Just go out there and try to play hard and get the win.”
While appreciating Stephenson’s willingness to mix it up and poke the bear that is James, McMillan believes there are lines that should not be crossed in terms of sportsmanship.
“I’ve been talking to him all season long about that,” McMillan said. “They’re going to build it up. We respect our opponents, but we don’t want to disrespect (the game), either.
“And the officials are going to be on it. They’re going to be all over that. As soon as he comes in the game, the cameras and the conversation are going toward that.”
Has Stephenson heeded McMillan’s advice?
“He’s had his moments,” he said. “I’d say most of the time he does.”
The Pacers’ Victor Oladipo, an All-Star and the team’s leading scorer this season, has not faced Playoff LeBron, but he will, starting Sunday, and realizes just how big a challenge he presents.
“He’s the best in the world for a reason,” he said.