The Cleveland Cavaliers began the 2017 playoffs as favorites to make the NBA Finals for a third-consecutive season, but that status came with some big qualifiers. The defending champions spent the last several months of the regular season in a defensive funk, registering as one of the least efficient units in the league and generally seeming to coast under the assumption they could flip a switch for the postseason. The question in Saturday’s playoff opener against the No. 7 Indiana Pacers is whether that process would happen immediately or if the Cavs would need more time to round into championship form.
It’s safe to say Cleveland’s not quite there yet. The Cavs escaped Saturday afternoon’s Game 1 with a 109-108 win, but the quality of performance and course of the final few minutes suggest that this first-round series against a 42-win opponent could be much tougher than most analysts expected.
That’s largely because the Pacers had a clean look to win it in the final seconds. Down just one point with 20 seconds on the clock, Indiana handed the ball to Paul George to make a play out of a timeout. The Cavs brought a double team to force it out of his hands, and C.J. Miles missed a fairly open jumper to end it:
Video stills showed Lance Stephenson open under the basket as the double team came to George, but that’s arguably a pass only LeBron James makes effectively. The greater indictment of Indiana’s play is that they seemed to have no Plan B if George had to give up the ball.
Indiana looked totally unprepared for the Cavs to double Paul George.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) April 15, 2017
LeBron said in his on-court post-game interview that the plan was to let anyone but George shoot, and it’s fair to say it worked. However, a title contender would hope to not have to resort to the luck of a missed game-winner in the first round. The most logical reaction to this result for a Cleveland fan would be one of relief, not confidence that everything had gone according to plan.
Even worse for the Cavs, they had to come back themselves late in the fourth quarter. Up 103-94 just inside the 7:00 mark, Cleveland saw Indiana go on an 11-0 run to take a 105-103 lead on a Jeff Teague three-pointer with 3:31 remaining. Yet that surge only inspired James to take over. LeBron followed immediately with this thunderous dunk to tie it.
James assisted on Kyrie Irving’s go-ahead jumper on the next possession, as well, and the Cavs had suddenly regained control of the game. Yet those big plays were just a portion of his near-constant contributions to the Cavs’ win. LeBron finished with a game-high 32 points (12-of-20 FG, 2-of-3 3FG, 6-of-9 FT) and 13 assists in 43 minutes in a full demonstration of his offensive abilities and his intention to impress himself upon this postseason just as he did in 2016. If nothing else, any struggles the Cavs have as a team can quickly be answered by a few transcendent moments from the best player of his generation. LeBron can cover plenty of weaknesses by himself.
The question is whether he should have to do so just one game into the playoffs. Cleveland’s offense was quite excellent on Saturday, shooting 61 percent in the first half on its way to 92 points in the first three quarters. But the Cavs’ consistent defensive lapses allowed the Pacers to stay relatively close all night even with only Paul George (29 points on 9-of-19 FG and seven assists) and Lance Stephenson (16 points on 8-of-13 FG) appearing to play particularly well.
When Cleveland hit a scoring drought in the fourth quarter, Indiana had plenty of opportunity to get back in the game. The Cavs only seemed to exercise any playoff-level resolve in the final minutes, providing little defensive resistance until it was absolutely necessary. For the most part, this game had the character of an early season contest — the atmosphere and excitement were there, but the cohesiveness that’s supposed to grow over an 82-game season was absent. Perhaps nothing summed up the experience better than the sight of point guard Jeff Teague regularly switching to guard LeBron and Kyrie Irving attempting to stop George in the fourth quarter. Playoff intensity has rarely felt so flippant.
The Cavs can take heart in knowing that they narrowly won last April’s playoff opener to the Detroit Pistons in a series they went on to sweep. But the fact that Cleveland has flirted with near-misses in the past and been fine doesn’t mean they can count on the same improvement this year. The Cavs have played into championship form during the playoffs before, but this performance still felt several steps behind where they’ve been in the past.