NBA Playoff Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4725/" data-ylk="slk:Paul George">Paul George</a> takes it to the line, sometimes. (Getty Images)
Paul George takes it to the line, sometimes. (Getty Images)

How They Got Here

Cavaliers: You know what happened. Very little happened, and we all made a stink about it.

The Cavs helped, to be sure. The team’s sensible and dignified reaction toward winning its first championship mostly carried over into the regular season’s first weeks, and you can forgive the fits and fulminations that filled the 2016-17 season’s middle months after considering the idea that LeBron James and Co. are clearly rather sensitive about their window to win a second straight title.

LeBron especially has proven prone to throwing a bit of a fit over things he can’t change, as fans would hope (from a franchise player who cares) even after acknowledging that LeBron’s midseason moanfests were clearly less than productive, that they did not and never could move that proverbial needle all that much. The Cavs lost 15 of 26 to finish 2016-17.

This didn’t get in the way of a good year in total, even if it will mean the Cavaliers enter the postseason with a win total (51) lower than repeat champion in decades past from Miami, Los Angeles or Chicago. The last time a defending champion entered the playoffs with a win total this low, LeBron’s 54-win Miami Heat dragged their way toward the playoffs and a Finals defeat in 2014 before James decided that his time and Miami had reached an end.

Those are the obvious announcements. What’s leaked into your typical coverage is the news that the Cavaliers have ranked amongst the league’s worst defensive teams over the season’s final month and a half, and that they also enter the postseason with a defensive ranking (21st) that only reminds of the 2001 Lakers and 1995 Rockets among recent champions in his heft.

The backers will point to the team’s absurdly-great offense, the scads of injuries to key players throughout, and the fact that even after the proverbial needle stayed where it was, the flip has yet to be touched by design – save for a few moments of regular season brilliance.

The wagering types will point to a more important fact: Cleveland enters the 2017 postseason fully healthy. There’s a nick here and there – Kyrie Irving is minding a knee injury, Kevin Love had midseason knee surgery, LeBron James led the NBA in minutes per game at age 32 for some reason – but the team appears to be ready for the chance to beat your four times in seven tries.

Pacers: It’s the Pacers’ role to take things to seven tries, or five and then six, and it’s a role past Pacer teams seemed curiously suited for.

This year’s unit? Even after 82 games and nearly seven full months together, we’re still not sure what to make of this group.

Created in response to what team president Larry Bird felt was a stilted, too-slow approach, Bird infamously hired slow-down maestro Nate McMillan last summer before what turned out to be a 42-win season. Hilarious to both basketball and wordplay dorks, the Pacer pace dropped seven slots to below league average at 18th out of 30 teams under McMillan in 2016-17.

This isn’t to say the former SuperSonics and Trail Blazers coach didn’t do a good job, because he did: Indiana’s offense shot up ten spots and though they took fewer threes this season (fourth-least in the NBA, weird for a team hurriedly built for pace and space under Bird), the Pacers ranked in the top five in three-point percentage. Indiana dropped out of the top five and into the ranks of the mediocre (where they’ve only improved to offensively, as well) on defense, and the squad responded with three fewer wins than during Frank Vogel’s uneasy 2015-16 run.

Perhaps this is why Paul George has been significantly upset all season long, confused by his team’s construction. If anything, George should be commended for limiting what could have been a boisterous, daily approach to the confusion, and McMillan has done a fine job creating something somewhat average out of this roster. Even if the Pacers were maddening in their inconsistency throughout.

The Pacers decided to do something about that maddening inconsistency by signing Lance Stephenson to a three-year contract with just a few weeks to in the regular season, much to LeBron’s chagrin.

Welcome back to head coaching, Nate McMillan. (Getty Images)
Welcome back to head coaching, Nate McMillan. (Getty Images)

Head-to-Head

The regular season run got off to a sordid start in Indianapolis, just a week into the season, offering local radio and website guys a winter’s worth of fodder when LeBron decided to sit against the Pacers in a regular season game (for the fourth consecutive season) just 23 days into the season on the second half of a back-to-back. The Pacers went on to win 103-93, but not before the nattering took hold.

Cruelly, James discussed not suiting up for the return engagement in Indianapolis three months later before settling down in time to contribute 25 points and nine assists in his team’s 132-117 win over the Pacers, who allowed the Cavaliers to take 36 and make 16 three-pointers. The Cavs then held the edge nine days later in Ohio, holding George to 4-19 shooting in the 113-104 win.

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The final pairing of the season, thankfully fully formed and rife with intrigue during a time of season when most of the NBA seemed to be under covers, was something else entirely. Two rested, anxious squads gave the league one of its games of the year in a double-overtime thrillfest that saw Paul George battle LeBron James to a draw before George’s Pacers finally fell by a 135-130 score.

A late-game blowup between Tristan Thompson and LeBron James, which James later apologized for is role in initiating, was symptomatic of the Cavaliers’ late-season struggles.

The Pacers just hope it will stand as symptomatic of the scuffles to come.

Likely Starting Lineups

Thankfully, what we saw on April 4 will be the order of the day moving forward.

The Cavaliers remain committed to going small, they have no choice but to after ex-Cav Timofey Mozgov left the team during free agency last July, and after midseason signee Andrew Bogut’s time with the team ended after just seconds in March.

Tristan Thompson, given much but also asked to do an immeasurable amount as the team’s lead center, starts up front alongside Kevin Love. Love remains the former All-Star despite contributing a marvelous 19 points and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes in 2016-17, and he missed 22 games due injury this season alongside offering defensive complications that no lineup will ever truly figure out. LeBron James is a starting small forward, while J.R. Smith (8.5 points on 35 percent shooting in 29 minutes a game since his return from shooting wrist surgery) still lines up next to All-Star Kyrie Irving.

Tyronn Lue points to The Switch. (Getty Images)
Tyronn Lue points to The Switch. (Getty Images)

Irving’s 25-point, six-assist numbers dwarf that of counterpart Jeff Teague – a 15-point, eight-assist man who has struggled to turn a corner in his first season back in his hometown of Indianapolis. Teague actually enjoyed a bounce back year in 2016-17, second only to his All-Star season in 2015, but he failed to act as the hoped-for missing piece that former Pacer PG George Hill acted as (in injury-plagued bursts) in Utah.

Teague has shared the backcourt with many in 2015-16, but the 31-year old Monta Ellis looks to be the would-be firestarter for the Pacers heading into the postseason. Thaddeus Young (one of the league’s best at finishing broken plays, and also creating broken plays) and fringe All-NBA candidate Paul George fill in as long-armed forwards.

Myles Turner, who just turned 21, made massive strides in accountability in his second season. Thrown into the mix at center, Turner still has ways to go on both sides of the ball but at least was counted upon as a two-way certainty in 81 starts at center this year, averaging 14.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 31 minutes a night.

Matchups to Watch

There is no getting around watching LeBron James chase Paul George around, the two will be nose to nose throughout the series for however long it takes to conclude itself, and if George approximates James’ contributions in a meaningful way then the Pacers will have put themselves into the series.

For years it has been a case of Great Defense vs. Better O between these two, and LeBron’s one-on-one edge has sustained over into 2016-17. The Pacers learned in Cleveland’s win on April 4, however, that merely matching James will not be enough. Indiana will have to find a way to counter a Cleveland offense that has been consistently terrific from the outset of the season, only failing the Cavs in relative terms during the team’s late-season swoon to the second seed.

The Pacers can be reliably counted upon to give up far too many three-pointers and certifiably spaced-out looks for their opponents. If Indiana is incapable of not only clouding Cleveland’s vision in the passing lanes, but giving a proper close-out on the attempt, then the Cavaliers will have a series of 115-point field days at a time of year when teams tend not to allow these sorts of scores.

Cleveland’s own issues on the defensive end of the ball won’t matter much in the opening round if they can pull of regular season-level tricks with their offense and still roll toward a series of too-open looks. What’s the matter if LeBron James was thisclose to blocking a Thaddeus Young layup on one end, when the Cavs are two half-court passes away from an open 25-footer from Kyle Korver on the other? That’s an extra point!

Kevin Love doesn’t go for the extra point. (Getty Images)
Kevin Love doesn’t go for the extra point. (Getty Images)

How the Cavaliers Can Win

At this point, we can’t bother ourselves with the defense. The 2001 Lakers had in-prime Shaquille O’Neal and the returning Derek Fisher to fall back on, at that end of the floor. The 1995 Rockets had Hakeem Olajuwon and Pete Chilcutt’s move to the starting lineup. These Cavaliers have no incoming Chilcutt.

What they do have is a lights-out offense that, though it has dimmed a bit due to injury and inconsistency in the regular season’s final few weeks, can’t be touched. Yes, we can all look forward to visions of LeBron hounding Isaiah Thomas or knocking Kevin Durant out of his comfort zone as much as one should fear Avery Bradley sneaking his way in for lay-ups or Shaun Livingston finding a fine time to start acting like Magic Johnson against Cleveland. Obsess over defense if you want. It is the playoffs, after all.

The Cavaliers need to concern themselves with making their offense invulnerable, through practice on company time. The Cavs can’t be satisfied with taking advantage of the Pacers’ lacking defensive rebounding and glass-hounding their way toward 120 points again. The Cavaliers have to scare people with its totality in offense, yet again.

How the Pacers Can Win

Indiana will have to defend in ways that exceeded its regular season averages.

Much as the Cavaliers have been begged by billions to flip that switch, the Pacers now have no excuse for sinking into the task ahead of them. There is no more acceptance on the fly for this team, they do not have to counter four opponents in a week, and the Pacers to a man are going to have to acknowledge the defensive potential that this roster, however flawed, still possesses.

There are defensive zeroes, to be sure, in Thaddeus Young, Monta Ellis, and Al Jefferson (who hasn’t played since injuring his left ankle on March 26 and is uncertain for this series), and there are players still too often rank as lacking defenders in a particular possession due to their height: Glenn Robinson III (due to return from a left calf strain soon), C.J. Miles, Aaron Brooks, and even the dogged Lance Stephenson.

What surrounds those Pacers are lengthy, available types like MVP George, the bounding second-year man Myles Turner, Lavoy Allen, and Teague. If the Pacers can do enough to crowd lanes and cover options on the perimeter, then this series could come down to Paul George having to hold his own on LeBron James.

And the Pacers love those odds.

Best Reason to Watch

It can’t be any clearer: LeBron James vs. Paul George.

This is an in-prime matchup, as James can’t blame a lack of reps after his long year for any hiccups out of the postseason gate. George already has a lather worked up as it is, he had to play an entire season with nostrils flared just in order to keep his postseason hopes alive. This is a man who could have been reliably counted out after suffering a horrific non-basketball injury during a very prominent basketball game in 2014, and yet the Pacer franchise player has responded in the most wondrous of ways.

He’s just a step in back of LeBron James, but closer to his clear superior in ways that Reggie Miller couldn’t ever count on in advance of his matchup with Michael Jordan.

It’s time for Indiana to remember as much, and it’s time for LeBron to trust in that inevitability.

(We’re certain he’s aware.)

Prediction: Cavaliers in six.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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