The Cleveland Cavaliers still haven’t flipped the switch, but LeBron James thinks they’re “right there,” within arm’s reach of playing their best ball. They’re also two wins away from Round 2, thanks to a dominant offensive performance from their Big Three.
LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love each topped 25 points for the first time in the playoffs, staking the Cavs to an 18-point lead through three quarters. But another final-frame sputter allowed Paul George and the Indiana Pacers to hang around and forced Cleveland to sweat out the final minutes before finishing off a 117-111 win that gave them a 2-0 edge in their best-of-seven opening-round series.
Irving led the way with a game-high 37 points on 14-for-24 shooting, baffling multiple Pacers defenders with his dazzling handle:
Love added 27 on just seven field-goal attempts, making six (including three 3-pointers) to go with a perfect 12-for-12 mark at the foul line as he bulled his way to the front of the rim and to the charity stripe time and again:
James did a little (or a lot) of everything, scoring 25 on 11-for-20 shooting with 10 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and four steals in 42 minutes of work:
The Big Three combining for 89 points, the most they’ve ever mustered as a trio in the postseason, and leading Cleveland to blistering 55.3 percent shooting as a team allowed the Cavs to once again survive an iffy-at-best defensive performance. The Pacers topped 29 points in three of Game 2’s four quarters, shooting 51.2 percent as a team on their own and coming back from 19 down in the third to make it a five-point game in the final minute.
But a honey of a baseline-out-of-bounds after-timeout play called by coach Tyronn Lue got Irving a wide-open layup to put Cleveland up seven with 29.6 seconds left …
… and an emphatic LeBron rejection of a would-be layup by Pacers center Myles Turner four seconds later …
… all but put the finishing touches on the win, the 19th straight Round 1 victory by a LeBron-led team, which is the longest streak for any player since the early-1980s Lakers.
The Cavaliers really only mustered one quarter of sound defense on Monday, limiting Indiana to 38.9 percent shooting with six turnovers in the third quarter … and, ultimately, that was enough.
“I think we were just a little bit early on a lot of their sets,” James said during his postgame press conference. “[…] Our bigs, Tristan [Thompson] and Kev, did a great job of rotating when we put two on the ball, and myself and Ky on the backside were just trying to read and react. We were moving, we were flying around, we were communicating our coverages, and it allowed us to have that 33-20 third quarter.”
After George had continued his strong start to the series with 18 points on nine shots in 19 first-half minutes, the Cavs ramped up their pressure on the All-Star in the third quarter, fueled in part by aggressive on-ball defense from swingman Iman Shumpert, who hadn’t played at all through the first six quarters of the series but was pressed into duty when J.R. Smith suffered a hamstring injury.
“Shump was unbelievable,” Lue said after the game. “Just staying ready, being professional. He came in and made it tough on Paul George. You know, we held Paul George to just four points in that third quarter, when our defense was really good, and Shump sparked that […] When [George] shoots it, I think he’s going to make it every single time. We just take away those turnovers — those stupid turnovers that get him out, get him layups, get him dunks and easy shots in transition — we’ll be a lot better off. But that third quarter, we was able to turn our defense up, trapping him, getting the ball out of his hands, scrambling, rotating, and it was a good defensive performance in that third quarter.”
On the other end, despite Indiana coach Nate McMillan siccing George on Kyrie to try to short-circuit Cleveland’s offensive flow, the Cavs just kept rolling:
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Irving went to work on George, Love overpowered Lance Stephenson, and together they outscored the Pacers in the third, 24-20, to take an 18-point edge into the fourth quarter.
“Well, we was trying to cool off Kyrie,” McMillan said after the game. “Kyrie had a big quarter, and we went to a matchup trying to cool him off, and I think we put Paul on Kyrie and Lance went to Love. And they did a good job of recognizing — which they do, they go at matchups — did a good job of recognizing matchups and taking advantage of that matchup. I thought that was huge […] We allowed Love to really just catch. We didn’t work to deny or front that post-up.”
Despite Irving and Love gashing the Pacers throughout that third quarter, Indy was able to storm back into the contest thanks to big buckets from George (10 of his team-high 32 points in the fourth) and some sloppy play from the Cavs, who once again seemed too content to settle for stalling isolation play down the stretch, allowing Indiana to get stops, get rebounds and, briefly, get a new lease on life.
That’s not what bothered Lue, though, or why he thinks Cleveland nearly blew its 18-point lead.
“I’m not even going to say it’s our D. It’s our offense,” he said. “It’s the offense. I think we get tired at times. It’s playoff basketball, so guys are playing a lot of minutes, and they’re competing, and then we don’t push the ball every single possession when we get a chance. But, not so much the isos, because we’ve got good players who can do that. It’s our turnovers [four in the fourth quarter, 19 in the game leading to 24 Pacer points]. We’ve got to take care of the basketball.”
Through two games, though, it’s looking like maybe they don’t. With firepower like Cleveland has, just paying attention most of the time and playing one quarter of defense seems like it’s plenty good enough in this series, against this opponent.
For what it’s worth, Cleveland’s four-time MVP thinks the distance between the Cavs and a fully operational champion isn’t all that great, which is why he’s not so concerned about big leads briefly becoming small leads before eventually becoming wins.
“We’re right there [close to] what we know we can become,” James said after the game. “We’ll figure it out. I’d much rather have an 18-point lead than not have a lead at all. We made plays down the stretch to win the ballgame, and in the postseason, that’s all you can ask for. But we’re right there on turning the switch on what we really can become.”
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