Cleveland should be feeling good about its basketball team now that the Cavaliers have swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. In this series, the Cavs showed some resemblance to their championship form.
In this past Sunday’s game four, the Cleveland team was able to hold off a late-game surge by the Pacers, 106-102. With 9:29 to go in the fourth quarter, the Pacers made a 19-4 run. With a Thaddeus Young tip-in off Paul George’s missed shot attempt, Indiana took the lead 102-100.
This is where LeBron James took over the game. He drained a pull-up three from the left wing to regain the lead for the Cavs. On defense, James poked the ball from Young. According to WKYC.com, the turnover led to two made foul shots from fellow teammate Kyle Korver. And to close out the game, the 14-year veteran secured a huge defensive rebound off George’s potential game-tying three, Inquisitr reports.
James finished the game with 33 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks. This was his 21st-straight first-round win, the most consecutive victories by a player since the league expanded the playoff format to include 16 teams, according to Inquisitr. As the buzzer sounded, LeBron held out a firm yet controlled fist pump. Business as usual. Of course, a flashback to the regular season would show that the mood in Cleveland was quite dour.
At the start of this year’s campaign, the Cavaliers were 25-7. Only Golden State and San Antonio possessed better records up to that point. Since that momentous start, the Cavaliers went 26-24, according to Cleveland.com.
By the end of the season, Boston had surpassed Cleveland for the first seed in the East. During that mediocre stretch, part the reason for such a drastic turnaround were the injuries. The team struggled to solidify its starting line-up with Kyrie Irving missing 10 games, Kevin Love missing 22 games and J.R. Smith missing 42 games due to thumb surgery, Cleveland.com reports.
However, the team was faced with a bigger issue: defense. According to Cleveland.com, the Cavaliers defense this season ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency. Since the All Star break, the team’s defensive rank dropped to an abysmal 29th. The last NBA champion not to post a top 10-ranked defense was the 2001 Lakers. Cleveland’s main problems were rim protection and pick-and-roll coverages. But the team’s biggest concern was its soft and lazy mentality on defense.
It is too early in the postseason to tell if Cleveland has found a remedy for their defense. However, during the first round series against the Pacers, each Cavalier seemed to leave everything on the court.
Their resilience has proven to be the difference, no better evidenced than when the team produced a record comeback in game three while down 25 points at the start of the second half. In the first half, Indiana outplayed Cleveland in every facet of the game. Paul George outshined everyone else on the court, finishing the half with 23 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
By the end of two quarters, the Pacers had scored 74 points, the third team to do so in the playoffs since 2000, according to Basketball Insider. Cleveland turned the game around, but in the least expected way.
Lue made a bold decision to sit Irving and Love, starters who were struggling offensively for a combined 8-29 shooting. Instead, Lue opted for a lineup consisting of LeBron James and four bench players, Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert, Cleveland.com reports. The Cavaliers silenced the Pacers’ crowd due to an all-around team effort.
Tristan Thompson was productive on offense and stellar on defense, locking down Paul George, who went 0-5 shooting in the third quarter, according to Basketball Insider. Shumpert also helped shut down George, while Frye and Korver hit four threes between them. The backup guard, Deron Williams, did not turn the ball over the entire half.
As a motivator, the Cavaliers have a puzzle in the shape of the Larry O’Brien Trophy. According to SB Nation, there are 16 pieces, each one representing the 16 wins it takes to win the NBA Finals.
Last year, when the team won it all, Coach Lue inserted the final piece after the historic game seven win against Golden State in the Finals. This postseason, the team has notched four pieces of the puzzle in place. Now, there are just 12 more to go.