Cleveland doesn’t have to work very hard to exploit Indiana’s myriad of defensive weaknesses, but they’re masterful at it, nonetheless. If Jeff Teague and Paul George switch the 1-3 pick and roll, LeBron James salivates. When they don’t, Kyrie Irving cooks. If the bigs try to force Deron Williams away from the middle screen, Channing Frye drains a three. If Monta Ellis or Thaddeus Young drop back and ball-watch, one of several shooters inevitably makes them pay. If the bench goes small, the Cavs torture Kevin Seraphin by going smaller.
Through two games, the Pacers have seemed incapable of inflicting this sort of calculated pain in the reverse, especially when it comes to Kevin Love.
With Lance Stephenson guarding him late in the third quarter of Game 2, nary a possession passed where the 28-year-old didn’t touch the ball on the block as he grounded and pounded his way to eight points in less than two minutes while stretching his team’s lead to 17. Granted, the mercurial guard shouldn’t have been put in the position to check Cleveland’s low post threat, but the way he guarded Love — scratching and clawing him from behind — ended up being almost as egregious as the fact that he was guarding Love. Even at the risk of Irving throwing a lob pass, there’s no excuse for not fronting him, here.
Worse, though, than the Pacers playing the victim against Love was that they didn’t purposefully look to victimize him with ball screens on the other end of the floor.
Whether picking or popping, it’s imperative that Indiana’s guards get Thaddeus Young more involved in the offense. According to the NBA’s Play Type data, the lefty power forward has only been utilized as the roll man twice during the playoffs. Below is the only occurrence where Love’s ability to defend the pick and pop was tested by Young, courtesy of Monta Ellis. Predictably, Young was given plenty of space to sink the open shot.
This sort of action serves a dual purpose. Not only does it actively force Kevin Love to defend, it makes it more challenging for Cleveland’s defense to roam to the strong side of the ball. Likely well-aware that he finished the regular season a measly 1-of-7 from three-point range since missing eight games in February with a wrist injury, the Cavaliers seem undeterred by Young standing idly in the corner when the opportunity is readily there to crowd Paul George and shrink the paint.
In the same way, Indiana’s plethora of drive-first guards have become a convenient hiding place for Love. After all, following an offensive rebound, what incentive is there for Love to retreat to Monta Ellis in the left corner — where he shot 28.2 percent thru 82 games — when he and Smith can force the ball out of George’s hands, instead?
(On a side note: Nate McMillan cannot continue to start Monta Ellis. Per NBA Wowy, the Pacers have been outscored by 10.9 points in the 44 minutes that Teague and Ellis have been on the floor together. Not only does that backcourt tandem make defending the Irving-James pick and roll comparable to navigating a minefield, Cleveland is essentially using Monta’s man — usually LeBron James or Kevin Love — as free safety. It’s gumming up the works on both ends. Miles needs to be reinserted into the starting lineup. That group outscored opponents by 7.7 points during the regular season, a mark that ranked fifth in the league among lineups that played at least 400 minutes together. Now that Glenn Robinson III can absorb minutes at backup small forward, this can be accomplished without displacing Point Lance or backsliding to the double plodder lineups, provided McMillan shortens the rotation. Do this, now.)
Even when the Pacers went small with Stephenson and Ellis joined by George, Miles, and Turner, the Cavaliers never put Love in the position to have to chase any shooters through a maze of picks. Rather, they had him play a sort of one-man zone against Stephenson. By sagging deep into the paint, Love dared the ball-dominant guard to shoot while being careful never to stray too far from help position.
To Lance’s credit, he knocked down two of these shots and managed to finish at the rim a couple of times with a head of steam.
Still, making Love stay honest is more reactionary than it is proactive. He placed in the 27th percentile defending the roll man during the regular season. Allowing him to sag off non-shooters, rather than forcing him to defend against picks, is showing him too much love.