The Cleveland Cavaliers disposed of the Indiana Pacers 106-102 on Sunday, finishing a four-game sweep that will give them the opportunity to rest before facing the Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks in the second round.
The Cavaliers controlled the series but did not dominate it. There wasn't a single blowout, and the sweep was in jeopardy many times. The series, however, was never in doubt, not with Cleveland's massive talent advantage and the presence of LeBron James, who has won 21 straight first-round games and 40 of 47 in his career.
Game 4 featured an almost-five-minute stretch in the fourth quarter where the Cavs went scoreless. Indiana went on a 17-4 run to take a lead. It looked like the Pacers might extend the series, but then James hit a 3-pointer at the perfect time.
"When we need that run or we need that big shot, he's been stepping up and making it," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. "That's what he gets paid to do. That's why he's the best player in the world. And he does it all the time."
When Pacers star Paul George missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds, the Cavaliers became the first team to advance in this year's playoffs. Given how they did it, though, they haven't quite answered all the questions that surrounded the team when they struggled late in the regular season. Lue insisted that getting four wins is "all that matters," adding that he was thankful to get time off and not have anybody get injured. Cleveland is trying to repeat as champions, though, and it's unclear whether we have really learned anything about the Cavs' chances to do so.
The clincher played out much like the first two games: The Cavs built a double-digit lead, let Indiana back in and won the game in dramatic fashion. In Game 1, they needed C.J. Miles to miss a jump shot at the buzzer to hold onto a one-point victory. In Game 2, Indiana came most of the way back from a 19-point deficit, but then James and Kyrie Irving made the needed plays.
Game 3 was a different story and perhaps the one that best illustrated what kind of team Cleveland has been this season: After falling behind by 26, James led the biggest second-half comeback in playoff history, taking over the game on both ends and creating wide-open shots for the Cavs' shooters. When they were trailing in the first half, they looked awful. When they were rolling in the second half, they .
There were certainly encouraging signs against the Pacers. James averaged 32.8 points on 54.3 percent shooting, including 45 percent from 3-point range, plus 9.8 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.0 blocks. Irving wasn't always efficient, but he had 37 points in Game 2 and a dominant,16-point third quarter in the clincher. Tristan Thompson once again looks like one of the most effective role players in the league, defending smaller players and boxing out bigger ones. Deron Williams almost never missed a shot.
These things should outweigh the negatives, but those exist, too. While Cleveland's defense executed its game plan to slow George on Sunday, it didn't have a single game where it really shut Indiana down. The second unit with James surrounded by shooters is still effective on offense, but it isn't as versatile or intense defensively as it was last season. Kevin Love started the series strong but missed a bunch of open looks in the last two games.
The most illuminating thing about the Cavs to come out of this first round might not be anything that happened on the court, but rather a quote from general manager David Griffin. In an interview with Fear The Sword's David Zavac, Griffin addressed the defending champs' poor defense in the regular season and the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the team.
"We might have one too many non-defenders on the floor from time to time, and that's made Ty's job challenging," Griffin said. "We went all-in on a team designed for the playoffs. We're not young, we're not athletic, we're not long. We've got a very fine margin for error. So if we don't play really hard or if we're not together, we're not very good. It's by design, because the thought process is when that much talent is highly motivated and you get days off in between and all that, you can absorb the fact that you're older and not as athletic or energetic on an 82-game basis."
Having seen the Cavaliers go through all sorts of ups and downs last season before becoming the best version of themselves when they fell behind 3-1 in the NBA Finals, this rings true. Maybe they looked vulnerable against Indiana, but maybe they're just not going to look as incredible as they can be until they have no choice.