The Cavs definitely don’t look like the team that came back from down 3-1 to win the NBA Finals a season ago, but they do look better than they did at the end of the regular season. They looked disinterested and uninspired as they concluded the last few games before the playoffs, and many people were worried headed into the postseason. While the team still doesn’t look their best, their intensity and focus have definitely improved. LeBron set the tone by showing up more than three hours early to get in extra work before Game 1, and in the process, he was able to show his teammates that it’s time to start taking things more seriously.
In Game 1, Cleveland pulled out a 109-108 victory, and the defense still didn’t look great. It was way closer than many Cavs’ fans would have liked, but the bottom line is that they were still able to win. Before the series began, I compared this series to the Cavs opening round series against the Detroit Pistons a year ago. It was a series where the Cavs swept their opponent in four games, but the games were all pretty close. It’s great that the Cavs have picked up their intensity and started taking the games more seriously in the postseason, but I think it’s going to take a lot more than just a little extra effort to work out some of the bad habits they developed down the stretch. They need to start communicating better and playing more effective team defense.
Some of their issues were brought to light throughout Game 1. They allowed the Pacers to shoot almost 50% from the field and gave up way too many easy dunks and layups by getting beat off the dribble or in transition and not being able to rotate quick enough with their help. They also sometimes overrated which left an opposing player wide open on the backside. The Pacers also shot almost 46% from beyond the arc because the Cavs gave up way too many open threes. Their perimeter defense has been shaky as of late, and it doesn’t look like Tyronn Lue has found the secret to fixing it that he thought he did.
Paul George scored 29 points, and Lance Stephenson came off the bench to score 16 in 27 minutes. The Cavs were able to get a stop when they needed to on the final possession by double-teaming Paul George and forcing him to give up the ball. This caused CJ Miles to take and miss the final shot and preserve the Cavs’ victory. It doesn’t matter how close the games are, but it does matter who is on the winning end. The Cavs were able to overcome their poor defense by shooting almost 54% from the field and getting 32 points and 13 assists from LeBron. They also got 23 points from Kyrie Irving, 17 from Kevin Love, and 11 from Channing Frye off the bench.
The other issue plaguing the Cavs late in the regular season was building leads and then watching them dissipate in the fourth quarter. They have had serious problems closing out teams and finishing them off at the end of games. This problem continued as they were outscored by seven in the fourth quarter of Game 1. They were also outscored by twelve in the fourth quarter of their 117-111 win in Game 2. Again, both of these games were wins, but they also highlighted some of the difficulties the Cavs are still having.
Game 2 did seem to show a little improvement from Game 1 though. The Cavs were able to seize control of the game a little easier as they led by five going into the half and stretched it out to eighteen at the end of three quarters. They were also able to string together consecutive stops when needed at certain points in the game, but they gave up more overall points and still gave up way too many easy buckets. The Cavs got 27 points from Kevin Love on only seven shots, and he snagged 11 rebounds. The Cavs also got 37 points from Kyrie Irving and 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists from LeBron. The Pacers got 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists from Paul George, and Jeff Teague scored 23 for the visitors. They could not quite close the deficit in the fourth quarter though.
The Cavs took advantage of matchups in the third quarter, and showed that they have so many weapons that it’s not easy to stop them all. Kyrie was getting to the basket at will, so the Pacers switched Paul George on him to try to slow him down. Lance Stephenson ended up having to guard Kevin Love, and Love just continually backed him down into the paint and scored on him. Love would either get a shot close to the hoop or cause Stephenson to foul him to stop him from scoring.
In the end, the Cavs wind up heading to Indiana with the opportunity to sweep the Pacers before returning home, and they will try to stretch their opening round record to a perfect 12-0 since LeBron’s return to Cleveland. The Cavs have shown some slight improvements, but they are still having to rely way too much on the talent mismatch to win games in this series. As the playoffs continue, the talent gap will lessen, and the team will have to win by executing better on offense, limiting their turnovers and other mistakes, and playing better defense. Let’s hope they can continue to improve and get the rest they need to be at their best when it comes time for the NBA Finals.