Indiana played Cleveland tough this season. They’re 3-1 against various versions of the Cavaliers whereas the rest of the teams currently in playoff position in the East are a combined 6-13.
Not only did the Pacers outscore them by 16 points across the regular season series, they knocked down 16 threes — in what was they’re best three-point shooting performance of the season — to hand the Cavs their fourth-straight loss one day after they had held a clear-the-air team meeting. They snapped Cleveland’s 13-game win streak when Victor Oladipo sent Kevin Love flying and proceeded to drain a big, late-game three, and they rallied from a deficit of 22 points to win by two as Lance Stephenson jammed on his air guitar, frustrated LeBron James into committing an untimely technical, and finished with 16 points to go with 11 rebounds.
However, none of that happened against the latest iteration of the Cavs.
Here’s four reasons why Cleveland’s refreshed roster should be the opponent the Pacers least prefer to face in the first round.
Victor Oladipo will have less freedom to roam than LeBron James and Kevin Love
Cleveland’s defense is still uninspiring, but they’re offense has been red-hot since Kevin Love returned to action after missing seven weeks with a broken hand, lighting up opponents for an East-leading 114.0 points per 100 possessions. They’ve been even more incandescent in the 105 minutes that he’s logged at center alongside LeBron, scoring 129.3 points per 100 possessions.
Those lineups — with Love playing the five — have the potential to upend what the Pacers have largely gotten away with this season.
Depending upon the match-up, Indiana either relies heavily upon Cory Joseph’s peskiness at the point of attack to make it tough for elite guards to use screens, or they live with allowing Bojan Bogdanovic’s length to tread water against the opposing team’s top wing so that Victor Oladipo can suffocate passing lanes.
If Cleveland spreads the floor with LeBron surrounded by Love and some combination of George Hill, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood, there won’t be an obvious shooting threat for which Oladipo can help off to conserve energy or create transition opportunities.
The Milwaukee Bucks are the only team in the Eastern Conference that scores more points off turnovers per 100 possessions than Indiana. The Pacers are 24-14 (.631) when their opponent commits at least 15 turnovers and 22-18 (0.555) when they don’t. As such, generating point-saving, point-creating deflections and steals hasn’t so much been their lifeblood as it’s played a significant role in determining their ceiling. However, it could be make-or-break if they can’t get stops against Cleveland’s 5-out offense and their roaming strategy is employed against them.
Here, for example, after hedging the screen against Oladipo and recovering to the free throw line, Kevin Love basically played a one-man zone in the high paint to deter the high-octane guard from penetrating the lane rather than follow Thad out beyond the three-point line.
Now, check out how much space he gave the lefty power forward to drill up the three once Oladipo reversed the ball.
Given that the 10-year veteran has shot a woeful 25 percent outside the paint since the All-Star break, expect that Cleveland would consistently crowd Oladipo in order to test whether his team has come prepared with a more nuanced approach against double-coverage than doubling down on their scoring engine’s skilled agility.
Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis won’t be able to hide on Jae Crowder when the Cavs go small
All together, Turner and Sabonis defended 54 possessions against Jae Crowder in the two games that Cleveland started small against the Pacers.
Because the since-traded wing only shot 32 percent from three with the Cavs, this allowed whichever 21-year-old center Indiana had on the floor to stay in help position without getting tangled up in the corner with step-too-slow perimeter defense whenever Jose Calderon or Kyle Korver engaged in off-ball screening action for Love.
LeBron with the ball while a three-point shooter sets a screen for Love is the stuff of nightmares, but it’s a little less scary when Thad’s mobility is employed to go under the baseline side of the screen and meet Love at the rim as opposed to getting the switch with Darren Collison or giving Calderon or Hill the space to shoot in the corner when Turner or Sabonis struggle to recover.
That calculus has shifted post-trade deadline now that Crowder can be replaced in those groupings with a more reliable scorer. Indiana could try to fight fire with fire by putting Bogdanovic at power fauxward beside Collison, Oladipo, and Stephenson with Young staying home on Love, but Cleveland could counter with LeBron at five.
And even if they didn’t, James could respond by taking extra steps off Lance in the corner in order to collapse on Oladipo, regardless of whatever sort of baiting tactics the prodigal point wing attempts to unleash on the other end of the floor.
None of which is to mention that playing ultra-small is a wrinkle that the Pacers have rarely explored this season.
Thaddeus Young has only played 38 minutes at the five position
Back in January, when Myles Turner was sidelined by a ligament sprain in his right elbow and Domantas Sabonis picked up his fourth foul with over five minutes to play in the third quarter while the Cavs were playing small, Nate McMillan opted to try Thad at center in a pinch as opposed to trotting out Al Jefferson.
Indiana’s speed lineup managed to pick off a few (no pun intended) cavalier passes that LeBron threw during that stretch, but the 10-year veteran’s sometimes strange off-ball defense was also confronted by this lose-lose situation: Send help to LeBron cutting toward the basket at the risk of leaving Love open in the left corner.
In this scenario, Crowder’s wonky spacing would’ve allowed Lance to rotate over to Love, but it didn’t matter because Thad’s rim protection doesn’t stand up against Turner’s rim protection.
On the season, the Pacers are minus-18 in the sparse minutes that the undersized power forward has logged at five with opponents shooting above 65 percent inside the three-point line.
Still, it’s regretful that there isn’t a larger sample size available to determine whether those lineups have been ineffective because they’re inexperienced or are inexperienced because they’re ineffective.
LeBron is 12-0 in his career in first-round series and has won his last 21 first-round games
These Cavs aren’t those rosters, just as they aren’t the same Cavs that the Pacers went 3-1 against this season. But even though past records can’t guarantee future results, LeBron being LeBron is enough to make the odds of ousting him in the first round seem daunting and the prospect of matching up with another team more appealing.