Go ahead, nitpick the final possession. Point out that Lance was open. Question Nate McMillan for calling a timeout. Ask why they didn’t run double-stagger screens for Paul George instead of in-bounding the ball to him, and ponder how it is that they weren’t better prepared for the Cavaliers to force the ball out of his hands after the Cavaliers had just shown that they were going to force the ball out of his hands. All are valid gripes, except for the fact that none of that likely would have even mattered if the Pacers hadn’t willfully decided to be gluttons for punishment on the other end of the floor.
Indiana’s defensive execution in the second quarter was the sort of hot mess that hearkened back to the team’s season opener against the Dallas Mavericks. There were moments in that late October match-up when Rodney Stuckey was guarding Dirk Nowitzki and Lavoy Allen was checking J.J. Barea.
Game 1 was no different.
Aaron Brooks got bullied by Kevin Love on the block. Kevin Seraphin got embarrassed by LeBron James on the perimeter. Channing Frye got a wide open dunk when Brooks and C.J. Miles had a miscommunication on a switch, and there was one particularly egregious possession when Thaddeus Young had no idea who he was guarding out of a timeout, which forced Lance Stephenson to have to pick his poison between Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith.
At greater issue, though, was the defensive strategy — and the place of the smaller guards within it — that produced the gaffe factory. Consider this: LeBron James scored a third of his field goals against Jeff Teague.
That can’t happen.
Indiana’s current point guard is not Indiana’s former point guard. This much should be obvious. Where Hill was capable of staying attached to his man’s hip through high ball screens, Teague has a tendency to lag from behind. Due to this well-noted deficiency, the Pacers opted to have him and Paul George switch the lethal Irving-James side pick and roll action. This decision left Teague repeatedly at the mercy of LeBron’s equal parts power and finesse 6-foot-8, 250 pound frame.
Take this possession from early in the third quarter for instance, Teague is left on an island with Cleveland’s genetic freak while he takes four (!!!) power dribbles and swishes the turnaround jumper in the lane.
Here, Kyrie Irving makes the easy lob pass to James on the block. Again, no help is sent.
In their defense, the Pacers face an agonizing decision. They can try to live with Teague’s porous on-ball defense, but then Irving will pick them apart. James will punish them if they continue to switch, but if they double him at least one of either J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, or Richard Jefferson will be open on the perimeter. It’s a lose-lose-lose. But, they have to give up something. Sagging off Jefferson in the right corner, where he shot 38.5 percent during the regular season, is probably the best of several bad options.
Of course, it didn’t particularly help matters that the Pacers were often times indecisive with their switches.
Still, there has to be a better way because it’s debatable whether the impact of the abuse Teague bore from James was limited to the defensive end of the floor. On the afternoon, he was 3-of-10 from the field and only made one field goal inside the paint. It became fairly evident that he was either exhausted or hampered by his ankle more then he let on when he elected not to take Frye off the dribble. If either one of those assumptions is true, then it’s probably not fair to expect him to draw charges against a speeding freight train.
All of which means that Nate McMillan is probably going to need to rethink his starting lineup, again. Replacing Monta Ellis with Stephenson is the obvious choice. Until Glenn Robinson III returns to the rotation, C.J. Miles can’t be in two places at once and his floor spacing is invaluable to a second unit that is finally playing in the black and necessarily has to match Cleveland’s small-ball bench lineups.
Stephenson’s presence gives Paul George someone else similar in size and stature to switch the Irving-James pick and roll while shifting Teague over to J.R. Smith. It also makes defending the space on the Irving-Love pick and pop more workable.
Reducing the prodigal point wing’s minutes as the second unit’s primary ball-handler comes at a cost, but the opportunity to avoid that botched final possession entirely in the next game has the potential to outweigh it. The Pacers managed to put themselves in position to win in spite of themselves. Imagine, now, if they had switched how they switched.