It’s that time of year once again. The NBA playoffs are beckoning and this brings a level of excitement that is often unparalleled. The defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers were not impressive down the stretch of the regular season. GM David Griffin continued his magic, acquiring Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, who will be counted on in the postseason. The Indiana Pacers were mediocre throughout the season. Team President Larry Bird hired Nate McMillan to replace Frank Vogel as head coach. There were persistent rumors about an impending trade of Indiana’s star player, Paul George. This Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers series preview takes a deeper look at the #2 vs. #7 match-up in the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers Series Preview
There are a few things to consider. First, the Cavs won the regular season series 3-1 against the Pacers after losing the first match-up. Also, Cleveland, led by the immortal LeBron James, was inconsistent during the second half of the regular season. The Cavs finished the regular season on a four-game losing streak, with an overall record of 51-31. One can make the argument that this is the worse regular season that James has been a part of since the beginning of his consecutive streak of NBA Finals appearances. The Cavaliers were fourth in the league in scoring at about 110 points per game, and they were third in offensive rating. However, Cleveland ranked just 21st in the league in defensive efficiency, with an overall rating of 110.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.
The Pacers clinched their place in the playoffs on the last night of the regular season by defeating a resting and ultimately unmotivated Atlanta Hawks team. Indiana’s regular season record of 42-40 did not set the world on fire. Led by George, an All-Star, the Pacers were the model of mediocrity in the league. They scored an average of 105.1 points per game and held an overall offensive rating of 15th. Their defense wasn’t much better, allowing 108.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 16th. The Pacers played at the 18th fastest pace in the league, as opposed to Cleveland’s 15th-ranked pace.
It must be noted that James and the Cavaliers were not fully invested in the regular season. On different occasions, the Cavs intimated that playoff seeding was not a high priority. Bear in mind that this team traveled to Oakland and defeated the Golden State Warriors in games 5 and 7 to snatch the NBA title from the then-defending champs last June.
The Obvious Marquee Match-up
Team USA teammates James and George face off against each other. George has had individual success in the playoffs versus James. However, the best player in the NBA is ‘King’ James. James has no intention of giving up his throne anytime soon. This season, James played a staggering 37.8 minutes per game, appearing in 74 contests. He was statistically brilliant – as always – and is a contender for league MVP.
George also was very good this year, averaging 23.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest while making his fourth All-Star appearance. George is a top-notch defender who has made an All-Defensive team three times. James need not be mentioned, as his accolades are another article in itself. The question is: Can George make James and the Cavaliers work enough on the defensive end to keep the Pacers in this series?
Coaching Will Be Crucial
After firing then-coach Frank Vogel, Pacers Supremo Larry Bird said, “It’s no secret, I want us to score more points.” Bird wants the Pacers to play smaller and faster. So out went Vogel, and in came Nate McMillan. McMillan-led teams are never mistaken for offensive juggernauts. This season played out to be no different. In addition to being a team without great shooting or defense, McMillan led the Pacers to a Relative Offensive Rating of -0.2 and a Relative Defensive Rating of 0.0. Contrast that to the Cavaliers’ Relative Offensive Rating of 4.8 and Relative Defensive Rating of 1.5.
Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue, on the other hand, is an offensive-minded coach with a roster littered with shooters to surround James. Though the team gave up, on average, 1.5 more points than the median this season, this team is capable of switching into another gear. Lue knows his team and has proven, during both last season and this one, to make good decisions. As coach of the Cavs, Lue has shown an ability to make subtle yet effective adjustments. In the last NBA Finals, Lue made the adjustment to involve unanimous league MVP Stephen Curry on every defensive possession. Lue versus McMillan will be a key talking point of this series. If McMillan can scheme up a method to slow down Cleveland’s potent offense, then the Pacers have a chance.
Battle of the Bigs
Basketball games are won or lost in painted area. The Pacers are a team with some size inside. Young stud Myles Turner looks like a problem to all opponents. Veterans Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson will be counted on to provide much-needed scoring in the paint. For the Cavaliers, All-Star Kevin Love had a fine season, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds per game. Other Cavalier big men such as Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye will be expected to contribute to the team’s effort. Frye is deadly accurate from three-point range, whereas Thompson is a rebounding machine. On the offensive glass, in particular, Thompson is considered to be one of the best the league has seen since Dennis Rodman.
The Backcourt Battle
For the Cavaliers, All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving is coming off of an impressive regular season. Irving was fantastic offensively, getting within inches of the 50-40-90 Club. That’s 50 percent overall shooting from the field, 40 percent from downtown, and 90 percent from the free throw line. Irving ended up shooting 47 percent from the field, 40.1 percent from three-point range, and 90.5 percent from the line. He had an impressive Player Efficiency Rating of 23.
For the Pacers, the often underrated Jeff Teague (a former All-Star himself) leads the charge. George may be the superstar, but Teague is the engine that drives the machine. Teague, too, had a decent season, finishing with a PER of 19 (the league-average PER is 15). He is very quick and provides a match-up issue for Irving, who is not great defensively. Teague, along with veteran Monta Ellis, is expected to keep Cleveland’s defense honest by forcing Irving to play both ends of the court.
What to Expect
For all the turmoil and tumult that affected Cleveland during the second half of the season, the fact is that LeBron James remains a Cavalier. It is difficult to foresee a team in the East defeating a James-led team four times to win a series. With that said, the Pacers are a veteran team that traditionally plays well at home. All things equal, it won’t matter. The Pacers are overmatched at almost every position, including coaching. Expect the Cavaliers to win the series in five games.