LeBron James' Cavs start NBA playoffs with a whimper, and it wasn’t even all about defense
James lost a first-round game for the first time since 2012
The problem with the Cleveland Cavaliers was supposed to be simple: Defense. Over the course of their wild, weird and wacky 2017-18 season, they have dealt with many changes -- including but not limited to endless injuries, a complete restructuring of the roster at the trade deadline and coach Tyronn Lue having to miss nine games to address his health -- but one thing has remained true: With LeBron James on the court, they have had little trouble scoring.
In the regular season, Cleveland finished No. 5 in offensive rating despite everything that went sideways. It finished No. 29 in defensive rating, though, and the big question heading into Sunday's series opener against the Indiana Pacers was whether or not this would improve. The Cavs were not great on defense in Game 1, but after their 98-80 loss, they have to face a new issue: What in the world happened on the other end?
If you didn't know which team was considered a championship contender and which team was unproven in the postseason, you wouldn't have been able to figure it out in the first quarter. Cleveland started out sloppy, falling behind 18-4 and turning the ball over seven times in the first quarter. Looking disorganized for most of the game, the Cavs scored at a rate of 84.4 points per 100 possessions, shot 38.5 percent and went just 8 for 34 (23.5 percent) from 3-point range.
Aside from a third-quarter run, Cleveland never found much flow or rhythm. It barely did anything in transition, scoring just 10 fast-break points. If the Cavaliers thought it would be easy to put up points against the Pacers, they quickly found out they were mistaken.
James, of course, got his numbers: 24 points on 7 for 17 shooting, plus 12 assists and 10 rebounds. That triple-double, however, was not nearly enough for a victory on an afternoon when no one else on his team managed more than 15 points. Cleveland forward Jeff Green, who started and played 26 minutes, missed all seven of his shots, including three from deep. Sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who is dealing with a sore right foot, played less than four minutes. Kevin Love had 17 rebounds, but only scored nine points on 3 for 8 shooting. Indiana was extremely aggressive pressuring the ball, but was selective in sending help James' way.
"I thought offensively, we didn't make shots, we didn't take shots, we just weren't aggressive enough," Lue told reporters. "I thought their pressure really bothered us early: Picking up full-court with their guards; post-ups with Kevin, they tried to be physical and take him out of it. We've just got to be more physical for Game 2 and own our space offensively."
This is not to say that offense was solely responsible for the Cavs starting the playoffs with a whimper. While they have not been an elite defensive team in any of their recent runs to the Finals, in past postseasons they were at least effective in terms of taking their opponent out of its comfort zone. That did not happen at all against Indiana -- Victor Oladipo had 32 points on 11 for 19 shooting, three other Pacers scored in double figures and they basically did it the same way they did in the regular season.
It appeared, however, that Cleveland's offensive frustration carried over to the other end. If it had taken care of the ball better -- or just made some more of the good looks it did create -- then it could have been a totally different game. Lue actually said he thought the team was "pretty good" on defense, a debatable claim but one that raises important questions concerning whether or not he has enough adequate two-way lineups at his disposal.
Maybe this poor performance shows how much the Cavaliers miss Kyrie Irving's playmaking -- when their offense stagnated, they didn't have many options outside of hoping James would bail them out. Maybe it shows the importance of Korver and George Hill, who was dealing with a back injury and only played three minutes in the second half. Maybe Tristan Thompson needs to re-enter the rotation in order to get Cleveland some extra possessions against a team that rebounded poorly in the regular season. Regardless of who's on the court, though, the Cavs cannot afford to be the less decisive, less disciplined team. If they are, the always-professional Pacers will punish them.
"You can't ease into the playoffs," Lue said. "I thought they came in and they attacked us and they hit us first. And we never were able to recover."
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