Just like last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers will open the NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers.
This year however is quite different than last year’s first round matchup. Paul George is no longer a Pacer, they are now led by the frontrunner for the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo finished this season averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 steals per game on 48 percent shooting and 37 percent from three. These were all career highs for the fifth-year guard.
On the surface the Pacers winning the season series 3-1 may lead one to believe the Cavaliers will have their hands full in this first round series.
However, if you look deeper into their four matchups this season, all of them took place prior to the Cavaliers overhauling their roster in early February. This new-look Cleveland team has yet to see the Indiana Pacers.
With that being said Cleveland did struggle to shoot the ball against Indiana. They averaged 104.8 points, shot 40.8 percent from the floor and just 27.5 percent from beyond the arc.
So what the Pacers did against the Cavaliers in the regular season does is impressive, but does not hold a ton of weight in this upcoming playoff series.
Here is the breakdown of the upcoming series.
Pacers Offensive Success
Even though all four games game prior to the trades made by Cleveland, this Pacers team did some damage against the Cavaliers this season. Oladipo, who came into his own this season, played some of his best basketball against the Cavaliers.
Oladipo averaged 25 points, 5 assists and shot 44 percent from the field and 47.2 percent from beyond the arc. His backcourt mate Darren Collison also played quite well when facing the Cavaliers.
Collison averaged 18 points, 5.5 assists and shot an incredible 68.3 percent from the field against the Cavaliers. He also connected on 75 percent of his three-point attempts.
Priority number one for Cleveland will be to slow down this potent Pacers backcourt. If Indiana’s guards are able to score and distribute at will, this is going to open the game up for the other Pacers players and will spell trouble for the Cavaliers.
While the offense runs through Oladipo, Pacers center Myles Turner has been effective this season and is a big part as to why there was little drop-off after Paul George was traded.
Size has been an issue for the Cavaliers all season, and Turner’s ability to score down low as well as from mid-range can give Cleveland problems.
Overall the Cavaliers struggled all season on the defensive end. While the defense may tighten up a bit in the postseason, it is still the biggest area of concern. Allowing the Pacers to score at will and gain confidence will only make this series go longer.
Cavaliers Depth & Strategy
It has been reported that head coach Tyronn Lue would use a 10-man rotation for the first round series against Indiana.
Their depth has been better than at any point during LeBron’s second stint in Cleveland. But finding the right combination will be the key for the coaching staff.
Right now four of the five starting spots are locked in for Cleveland: George Hill, Jeff Green, Kevin Love and LeBron James. The other spot will likely go to Rodney Hood.
Players also who will likely receive playing time are: Jordan Clarkson, J.R. Smith, Jose Calderon, Larry Nance Jr and Kyle Korver. Cedi Osman and Tristan Thompson will likely be on the outside looking in when it comes to playing time.
One key for the Cavaliers will be what they do when LeBron is off the floor. James, whose 36.9 minutes per game led the NBA, will likely play upwards of 42-45 minutes per game.
James had a career year and played in all 82 games, but rest, especially in a high-intensity playoff series is critical for James. If the Cavaliers are not able to maintain a lead while James is off the court, this could spell trouble.
Love, who is the clear number two option, will need to step up. He averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds, while J.R. averaged 13.3 points and was 45.5 percent from beyond the arc. Green, who may have the task of guarding Oladipo, also will need to fill the void when James is not on the floor.
But while James is on the floor the Pacers will have to come up with a way to slow down James. Bojan Bogdanovic guarded James over 50 percent of the time, and while he is an okay defender, likely cannot keep up with LeBron.
This will result in the Pacers throwing multiple defenders at James and leaving Love, Hood, Smith and Korver open on the perimeter to make Indiana pay.
Another combination that we should see is Love paired with Nance Jr. While the sample size is small, this duo offers a deadly combination. Paired alongside LeBron this could be the front court that does the most damage for Cleveland.
In 16 minutes per game in four games, all wins, the Nance-Love combination has a 115.7 offensive rating, a 95.5 defensive rating, for a plus-20.2 net rating.
As a proud resident on “The Cavs just aren’t very good this season” Island, this scares the bejeezus out of me.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 2, 2018
As for their defensive strategy they will likely force the ball out of Oladipo’s hands and make others such as Lance Stephenson, Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis beat them.
Blitzing Oladipo on defense may force him into making a rushed decision and turn the ball over. Playing Oladipo tough will allow LeBron to play more of that free safety role, which could lead to several fast break opportunities.
On the other hand the Cavaliers will have to limit their turnovers. Indiana made a living forcing turnovers this season. The Pacers forced turnovers on 16.2 percent of opponent’s possessions during the regular season, which was 2nd best in the NBA.
Cleveland averaged 13.7 turnovers in the regular season, but when they faced Indiana that number jumped to 15.5.
But when the Cavaliers do commit turnovers, they will need to get back in transition and prevent the Pacers from scoring on the fast break. With the trades the Cavaliers improved their transition defense as they allowed the 3rd fewest transition opportunities.
While the Pacers present a challenge for the Cavaliers, this should be a relatively short series if the Cavaliers take care of business. Oladipo became a franchise player this year, but a team with one star against a team like the Cavaliers is tough to overcome.
Another wild card is several of the Cavaliers younger acquisitions having little (or no) playoff experience. You can talk about the playoffs all you want, but the best teacher is the in-game playoff experience.
There is no better player to go into the playoffs with than LeBron. He should be able to cover many of the Cavaliers flaws, but he cannot do it alone. It will take a team effort (especially on the defensive end) to stop the Pacers before they can get going and end this series before it gets going.
Prediction: Cavs in 5