The Indiana Pacers finished only two game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Central Division this season, but few give them much of a chance to knock off the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions, whom they will meet in a first-round playoff series that starts Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena.
Darren Collison, who had a fine season, averaging 18 points a game and leading the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage (including an almost unfathomable 75 percent from deep in four regular-season games against the Cavs the season) knows the enormity of the task that awaits the Pacers.
“We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us. Everybody knows they got one of the best players in the game on their team,” he said, referring to LeBron James. “But it’s nothing to be discouraged (about). We feel very confident in ourselves by the way we’ve been playing basketball, and we’re excited for this opportunity.
“It’s a big opportunity for us to really show some things. We’re not on national television a lot, but to be on national television and show everybody how we normally play Pacer basketball, it’s going to be fun.”
Then, of course, there are the aforementioned doubts. Last season, the Cavaliers swept the Pacers in a first-round playoff series.
“We’ve been doubted before,” Collison said. “We’ve been doubted, like you said. all season long as individuals. So it’s nothing new for us.
“This is where you really make a name for yourself, not just for yourself, but as a team. I felt like the way we played this season, I would like that to carry on. I think we can do some good things in postseason play. This is the best time to play basketball. Everybody’s watching, so why not?”
Victor Oladipo, who made the All-Star team for the Pacers after being acquired in the trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City, said it’s about Indiana continuing to do the things that took it to a surprising 48-34 record this season.
“End of the day, we’re just got to go out there and we got to play,” the Pacers’ leading scorer said. “Play at a high level. It’s not going to be easy, but it ain’t been easy all year for us.
“So we’ve got to go in there with that mentality and go out there and win it. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to go and make it close or, you know, just try to have fun. We’re trying to win. So I’m looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge. ”
While the Cavaliers (50-32) are most definitely a challenge, Oladipo said he’s concerned about the opposition.
“I mean, it didn’t really matter who I was playing or who we were playing,” he said. “We weren’t even supposed to be here to begin with, so it didn’t really matter to me.”
Lance Stephenson, who has had more than a few run-ins with James, believes the Pacers are built to withstand the challenges the Cavaliers present.
“We just got to take care of business,” he said. “We got to approach this game with the mindset of we can win and we’ve got a chance.
“And I think my teammates prepare for that, and I’m working hard in getting myself ready for it, too.”
Indiana coach Nate McMillan, while appreciating the Pacers’ surprising regular season, realizes the playoffs are a different game, altogether.
“This is a different season for us, and we did some good things during the regular season, but playoffs is a different style of basketball,” he said. “And we’re really going to wait and see how we respond to this challenge. This is a different challenge.
“And, you know, we’re going up against one of the top teams and one of the top players in the game. So, it’s wait and see.”