The Cleveland Cavaliers are moving on to the second round of the NBA playoffs without losing a game. Ho, hum. For the third consecutive season, they rolled over an overmatched opponent in the first round without a blemish. Ho, hum.
But there was nothing boring about the Cavaliers’ dispatching of the Indiana Pacers, and there was certainly nothing boring about the fourth quarter of Sunday’s decisive Game 4 victory, 106-102 in Indianapolis.
After cruising all afternoon and holding the Pacers at arm’s length, the Cavaliers threw away a lead and trailed the Pacers by two with less than 90 seconds remaining. But LeBron James capped off a brilliant all-around performance with a pull-up 3-pointer in Myles Turner’s eye that proved to be the dagger:
The Cavaliers then survived a wild final minute that featured two Pacers turnovers, a quite remarkable J.R. Smith behind-the-back pass that went awry…
IM TWEETING THIS AGAIN I DONT CARE BAHHAHAHAHAHAHA
JR SMITH WENT BEHIND THE BACK INSTEAD OF DRIBBLING OUT THE CLOCK I CANT BELIEVE THIS ???????????? pic.twitter.com/rNVpJzVLmQ
— ????JR SMITH FOREVER???? (@World_Wide_Wob) April 23, 2017
… And a Paul George miss at the buzzer that spared Smith a whole lot of blushes, not to mention criticism and tongue-lashings.
Asked about Smith’s gaffe in his postgame press conference, Cleveland coach Ty Lue let loose a smile and a muffled laugh, and said, “I didn’t see it.”
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue chuckles at J.R. Smith's ill-advised behind-the-back pass: "I didn't see it." pic.twitter.com/BLCr5MKRtK
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 23, 2017
George’s miss, and before it James’ dagger, capped off a series that was, in its own special way, historically tight. It tied a 42-year-old record for the lowest combined margin of victory in a four-game NBA playoff sweep, according to ESPN, with the four games decided by a total of 16 points. There were three particularly exciting ones and one memorable comeback.
And yet the Cavs have emerged unscathed, and nothing has changed. There were a few moderately interesting takeaways from the series, but there isn’t much out of the ordinary in the final result. The Cavaliers are moving on without looking significantly better or worse than expected. They suffered no major injuries. They remain the clear favorites in the East. James remains the best player in the world.
James also continued his prolificacy in the first round of the NBA postseason. He’s now 48-7 in his career in first-round games, and has won 21 in a row. He’s never lost a first-round series, and has swept seven of the 12 he’s participated in. Those numbers are staggering.
Indiana, meanwhile, is no more or less irrelevant than it was entering the playoffs, and faces the prospect of losing its franchise cornerstone at some point over the next 18 months. The Pacers’ inability to build anything resembling a contender around Paul George could accelerate the timeline and increase the likelihood that George bolts for Los Angeles or elsewhere.
Sunday’s game wasn’t terribly engrossing for three-and-a-half quarters, but did offer a few enthralling moments. That’s because the Cavaliers have a few extraordinary players, and those players can do extraordinary things. It was plays like James’ chase-down block on Thad Young…
… and Kevin Love’s outlet passes to a streaking James …
… that set Cleveland apart.
The Cavaliers almost seemed to be toying with the Pacers at times. The second of Love’s two signature outlet passes was a called play off a Pacers free throw. Lou was reportedly so sure that he and his team would catch Indiana napping that he turned to reporters and tipped them off. After James cruised to the hoop for an uncontested layup, Lue turned back to the media. “Told ya,” he said.
James was the best player on the floor — well, of course he was. He had 33 points and 10 boards, plus four crucial steals in the second half, including three in the fourth quarter. The third of three came on the very next possession after his 3-pointer over Turner. After two Kyle Korver free throws that extended the lead to three, James forced the errant pass that led to Smith’s steal.
James was dominant alongside Kyrie Irving and Love, but also with the four-man supporting cast of Deron Williams, Smith/Iman Shumpert, Korver and Channing Frye surrounding him. The Cavaliers were far more successful with the James-plus-bench lineup than with their starting five throughout the four games. The former looked near unstoppable at times. Interestingly, it was the lineup of James, Love and Irving that let Indiana back into the game late.
But the Cavaliers held on, and for now, that’s all that matters. They’ll get plenty of rest before a second-round matchup with either the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks, and will be heavy favorites over either. The so-called switch has not yet been permanently flipped, but with James so locked in, the Cavs look destined for yet another meeting with Golden State at the summit.