7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cavaliers -1, Over/Under: 208
The beauty of the Playoffs is that no matter how preordained the outcome may seem, there is typically at least one Matchup that surprises us, and while this particularly Postseason has certainly packed a few already, perhaps none have been more surprising than the Four-Seed Cleveland Cavaliers heading to Indiana to battle the Five-Seed Pacers with their First Round Series tied at One Game apiece. Before we get into the breakdown of the first two games of this Series, let’s be completely honest, folks: the Cavaliers (50-32, 4th in Eastern Conference) are extremely fortunate to NOT be trailing 0-2 heading to Indianapolis. Simply put, Cleveland has been the far lesser of the two combatants over the first two games of this Series, which does not bode well for this team if they are to potentially move on to the next Round. The problems began early in Game One’s embarrassing 98-80 Defeat, as somebody clearly forgot to inform Tyronn Lue’s Side that the Playoffs had indeed begun, for the upstart Pacers raced out to a commanding 33-14 Lead in the First Quarter, an advantage that they wouldn’t relinquish. It would be hard to imagine a group headlined by LeBron James (27.5 PTS, 54.2% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 8.6 REB, 9.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.9 BLK, 28.6 PER) looking more flat and unprepared in the Opening Game of a Series; the Cavs shot a miserable 38.5% from the Field, including 8-of-34 from Downtown (23.5%), while committing Sixteen Turnovers in comparison to Twenty-One Assists, with James being the only member of the Starting Lineup to score more than Nine Points, posting a Triple-Double consisting of Twenty-Four on just 7-of-17 Shooting (41.2%), along with Ten Rebounds and Twelve Assists. That’s correct, folks: Cleveland lost by Eighteen Points despite the 4-Time MVP notching yet another Triple-Double, breaking a streak of Twenty-One Consecutive First Round Victories. So with the Supporting Cast virtually nonexistent in Game One, what was the solution for the Cavaliers in Game Two? More LeBron!!! This was vintage James, as No. 23 opened the affair scoring his team’s first Sixteen Points, before ending the 100-97 Win with a staggering Forty-Six Points on 17-of-24 Shooting (70.8%), including 2-of-5 from Three (40.0%), Twelve Rebounds, Five Assists, and a pair of Steals. The Hosts flipped the script, humbling Indiana in the First Quarter 33-18, in route to shooting a much-improved 50.7% Overall, burying 11-of-28 Threes (39.3%). However, as mandatory as this Win was, there were still a slew of troubling signs that will be sure to keep Lue and his Staff up late at night as this Series progresses. First and foremost, the Supporting Cast still struggled mightily, with James accounting for nearly 50.0% of his team’s points, while Kevin Love (17.6 PTS, 45.8% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 22.4 PER) and Kyle Korver (9.2 PTS, 45.9% FG, 43.6% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.4 BLK, 13.4 PER) combined for Twenty-Seven. Many of the new faces that Cleveland acquired at the Trade Deadline have been proverbial ghosts thus far, with the likes of Rodney Hood (10.8 PTS, 44.2% FG, 35.2% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.7 PER), George Hill (9.4 PTS, 44.4% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.2 PER), and Jordan Clarkson (12.6 PTS, 45.6% FG, 40.7% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 15.4 PER) scoring a total THIRTEEN Points in Game Two. For a Franchise that has tried to do everything in their power to convince LeBron to stay in Northern Ohio, this hasn’t been the best Sales Pitch. And while Love played much better in Game Two, particularly with Lue tweaking the Lineup so that he moves to Center, the 5-Time All-Star was far from efficient (5-of-16 FG), and suffered a partially Torn Ligament in his Left Thumb. Sure, he’s Right-handed, but this is a development that still bears watching moving forward. And in regards to switching Love to Center, essentially going Small? While it certainly boosted their efforts on the offensive end of the Court, it could have potentially disastrous effects on the defensive end, for the Cavs still permitted the Pacers to shoot a stellar 52.6% from the Field, and have yet to figure out a way to slow down Victor Oladipo (who we’ll discuss shortly). A Starting Five consisting of James, Korver, Hill, and J.R. Smith (8.3 PTS, 40.3% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 8.5 PER), with Love at Center packs plenty of Shooting and Spacing, but with the exception of LeBron, the rest of that unit is a liability defensively. The Playoffs are all about adjustments, and while this one allowed Cleveland to come away with Game Two, we’ll how much in influence it has in Game Three and beyond.
Meanwhile, if you’re a member of the Pacers (48-34, 5th in Eastern Conference), part of their Organization or simply a fan, you can’t help but feel encouraged by their performance in the first two games of the Series against the Cavaliers, the reigning 3-Time Eastern Conference Champions. As we stated earlier, Indiana has clearly been the better team over the duration of the first encounters, humbling their Central Division Rival in Game One, before very nearly coming back to steal Game Two. This certainly looks to be a case in which familiarity breeds contempt, for it’s become crystal clear that Nate McMillan’s charges have ZERO fear of the Cavs. Then again, why would they? While their drama and struggles have been overly-documented throughout the term, they’ve had a particularly hard time against the Pacers, who bested them three out of their four Regular Season Meetings, shooting 48.0% from the Field, including a blistering 46.1% from beyond the Arc, while dishing out over twice as many Assists (24.8) as Turnovers committed (12.3). All that did was instill confidence in McMillan’s young group, really took Cleveland to task in Game One, jumping on them early (33-14 in the First Quarter), before closing strong (25-15 in Fourth Quarter). Victor Oladipo (23.1 PTS, 47.7% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 2.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 23.1 PER) was sensational, scoring a game-high Thirty-Two Points on 11-of-19 Shooting (57.9%), including 6-of-9 from Three (66.7%), along with Six Rebounds, Four Assists, and Four Steals, further enhancing the his Resume’ as the NBA’s lock for Most Improved Player f the Year. In fact, with that performance, the 25-Year Old became just the fourth player in Franchise History to score Thirty Points in a Game One, while knocing down at least Six Three-Pointers in the process, joining the likes of Reggie Miller and Paul George. While Game Two was certainly different than it’s predecessor, there were still plenty of signs for optimism for this team. First and foremost, in spite of falling behind by a wide margin early (Cavs led 33-18 at the end of the First Quarter), the Visitors gradually clawed their way back into the contest, outscoring the Home Side 79-67 the rest of the way. Oladipo continued to exploit his opponent’s weaknesses, scoring Twenty-Two Points on 9-of-18 Shooting (50.0%), though was relegated to just over Twenty-Eight Minutes of action after getting called for a pair of quick fouls early in the First Quarter (both inside the first 62 Seconds!!!). However, even without him for long stretches of the night, Indiana persevered shooting a scorching 52.6% from the Field, taking advantage of Cleveland’s poor defensive Lineups. Both Darren Collison (12.4 PTS, 49.5% FG, 46.8% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 18.8 PER) and Myles Turner (12.7 PTS, 47.9% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 0.6 STL, 1.8 BLK, 16.6 PER) played well, with the former posting totals of Sixteen Points, Five Rebounds, and Six Assists, with the latter adding another Eighteen Points and Five Rebounds. The problem though, was that as well as they shot the Basketball, they weren’t particularly sharp from long-range (6-of-22 3FG, 27.3%), and they failed to make much of an impact from the Charity Stripe (9-of-12 FT, 75.0%), while also committing Seventeen Turnovers in comparison to Twenty-Two Assists. And with all that said, the Visiting Side still had a golden opportunity to extend the outing and force Overtime; with Twenty-Seven seconds remaining, Oladipo missed a wide-open Three-Pointer after the Pacers rallied from an 18-Point Deficit, relinquishing the chance of taking a commanding 2-0 Series Lead heading to Indianapolis. However, as we’ve been saying throughout this piece, the signs are there for this team to pull the upset, for Oladipo has proven to be as big of a matchup nightmare for the Cavs as LeBron has been for the Pacers, and with Cleveland’s insistence of sacrificing their defensive play for more shooting, these guys should continue to put the ball through the net. They simply need to remain aggressive… well maybe just aggressive enough but to avoid foul trouble.