Continuing our series of 2018 NBA Playoffs first round previews here at GiveMeSport.
READ: Part 1 - After a franchise-best season, the Toronto Raptors should not be threatened by the Washington Wizards
READ: Part 2 - The Golden State Warriors struggled down the stretch, but so did the San Antonio Spurs, and only one could afford to
READ: Part 3 - The Miami Heat play relentless defence, but the Philadelphia 76ers might have just too many stars
READ: Part 4 - Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans to face off in a battle of guards, threes and Anthony Davis
READ: Part 5 - The Boston Celtics may lack Kyrie Irving, but the Milwaukee Bucks lack for more than that
READ: Part 6 - The Houston Rockets are a historic offensive team. Good luck, Minnesota.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have come to be defined by their streakiness. Starting out this season 3-5 and then 5-7, they subsequently peeled off a streak of 18 wins in 19 games in which LeBron James looked like the perfect puppet master. Then they dropped 10 of 14 and 13 of 19, looked terrible doing it, and gutted their team in the rare mid-season rebuild. Immediately after the trades, they rebounded to peel off two impressive-looking wins over two quality opponents (the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics), looking 6 of their next 11, before peeling off 10 wins in the next 11 to somehow wind up with the fourth seed. Had it not been for a typically sloppy loss to the New York Knicks to close out, it might have been third.
Last season, of course, was much the same. They started out 28-8, then lost 6 of 8, then won 10 of 12, then finished the regular season losing 15 of their last 26. We wondered allowed whether they could even change gear any more.
Turns out they could. The Cavaliers immediately peeled off two consecutive sweeps, winning 12 of their first 13 playoff games, in making their third straight NBA Finals. There is, of course, such a thing as playoff LeBron.
With 217 playoff games under his belt to date, three NBA Championships and seven consecutive trips to the NBA Finals (eight in total), James has a playoff pedigree among the game's all-time best. [Unless you measure championship totals only. In which case, eh.] LeBron proved in his almost single-handed reversal of the Cavaliers' 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals that he is capable of a skill level and stamina that few if any have ever rivalled. The man who almost never, ever ever has a bad game is even less likely to have one in the postseason.
Playoff LeBron does not need much. He needs some shooters, which Cleveland have - capable of playing five-out in any line-up that does not feature Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers have a team three-point rate of .379% (fourth in the league), and a team three-point shooting percentage of 37.2% (sixth). They cast up the outside shots, and, when playing at their best, know when to cut off of the gravity that opens up.
But he does need some defense. And in this respect, the Cavaliers have failed all season.
That said, for only the last handful of regular season games have the Cavaliers had their full compliment of defensive players. This has been particularly true in the frontcourt, where all of Thompson (a highly important little things and switches defender, even if he is not what he was), Larry Nance Jr (a versatile and athletic defensive player across all the frontcourt positions who was the jewel in the crown of the reload) and Kevin Love (new-found centre thriving at the position who, although he does not protect the rim, does add defensive value through his rebounding) were absent at one time.
All are now back, but even if they gel immediately, they have lot of backcourt work to cover. Once a coveted defender, George Hill seems to have lost his sharpness before the age of 30, while Jordan Clarkson was never attentive. J.R. Smith always could do it in bursts, but those bursts have gone, as has the quickness that made Kyle Lorver surprisingly effective as a helper and recoverer. Rodney Hood has never lived up to the defensive potential his length offers him, Jeff Green hasn't either, and even LeBron himself has to be selective with his rotations now. He doesn't have the legs in him for high intensity, high-minute defence any more, and sometimes just stands there.
As a team, then, Cleveland have proven vulnerable all year to teams who play with space and willingly share the ball. Do the Pacers fit that bill?
The Pacers have shooting. Although they seem somewhat reticent to use it - 26th in the league in both total three-point attempts and three-point rate, and seemingly with few set plays designed for a three - they have shooters and an ability to play up to five out, with their regular starting big man pairing of Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner at least. They also rank ninth in the league with a very healthy 36.9% team three-point shooting percentage. Perhaps they should design more sets for them.
What they also have is an All-Star guard. Throughout this season, Victor Oladipo has grown and grown and grown. The man acquired through necessity rather than by design (at least until such time as revisionist history has fully revised his acquisition to say that he was the target all along and Paul George was merely the bait) is now one of the league's best two guards, a reinvigorated player on both ends of the court who combines great plays on the ball with a suddenly-excellent shot off of the dribble. Postseason runs need stars, and Indiana has one.
Having already shifted up a couple of gears this season, Oladipo might need to shift up another one. For all the defensive attention he now draws, Oladipo needs to play with it, both as a decoy and when attacking in the halfcourt. As the refeed, bail-us-out guy, Oladipo has had much more success than it was assumed that he would, but more possessions need bailing out than necessary because of sometime static ball and man movement that, ultimately, Oladipo is a part of. One of the breakout players of the season, Oladipo still has a bit more to do.
Moreover, though, that star needs help. Indiana's upside has been capped all season by that lack of a second star who could step up. Turner remains very passive in too many games, and while Young, starting point guard Darren Collison and the streaky-but-occasionally-indispensable-looking Bojan Bogdanovic at small forward all play well within their roles, they do not have step-up potential. No one does, really, except Lance Stephenson about four times a year. And with all due respect to Lance, he should not be encouraged to try and take over too often.
Perhaps they do have one advantage. While they are a poor defensive rebounding team - neither Turner nor young have the strength, lateral movement or core strength to shine here - they do quite a lot better on the offensive glass due in large part to the play of the other part of the Paul George trade, Domas Sabonis. Rugged and determined on that end, a post and paint target offensively, a finisher and an OK pick-and-pop mid-range shooter from straight on, Sabonis interjects some effort and impact from the bench, the kind of player Cleveland has also struggled with all season. In fairness, so have the Pacers, on account of Turner's limitations in the post and when up against true strength, so a healthy and active Kevin Love could feast against a team that struggles to defend his strongest areas and fails to clean its own defensive glass. But if Indiana is to break LeBron James's streak, they need to ride advantages like this.
And yet if Playoff LeBron shows up like he can, none of that will matter.