For the next few days, the FPC NBA staff will preview each NBA playoff series. Next up, Ben Pfeifer previews the Cavaliers vs Pacers series.
The 4-5 playoff series this year is a rematch of last season’s 2-7 matchup. Last season, the Cavaliers swept the Indiana Pacers. Despite this, every game was close and Cleveland could have easily lost that series. This year, we have two completely different rosters on our hands. Both teams lost stars in Kyrie Irving and Paul George; the Pacers gained one in Victor Oladipo. One constant remain, the one that looms over any team facing Cleveland: LeBron James. This year, the Pacers took the season series 3-1. Can Indiana pull the upset and give LeBron James his first loss in the first round in his career?
The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a roller coaster of a season. They had a nice hot streak to begin the season and a catastrophic losing streak towards the middle of the season. The veterans of the Cavaliers in Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, etc., did not mesh well with LeBron James. At the trade deadline, Cleveland sat an unimpressive 31-22 record and the second worst defensive rating in the NBA (109.9). This team did not mesh. So at the deadline, Cavaliers’ General Manager LeBron James (Koby Altman) blew it up. They dealt away the aforementioned veterans for young talents in Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. Cleveland finished off the season fairly well but they sit in the four seed, the lowest seed LeBron James has finished in a long time.
After the Pacers seemed to get fleeced in the Paul George trade, most did not predict them to come anywhere close to the postseason. Now, they have 48 wins and are the fifth seed in the East. What happened? Well, Victor Oladipo happened. The Pacers have been consistently good all year and that is almost solely due to the play of Victor Oladipo. He blossomed into an All-Star this year after being an average starter, averaging 23.1 points, 2.4 steals, 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. The play of guys like Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Myles Turner have helped lift Indiana to this point. This team has also had no significant injuries this year, giving them a big advantage over many other teams in the NBA.
Keys To The Series
Who is Indiana’s LeBron-Stopper?
When you look at every team that has recently beaten LeBron James in the playoffs, they all had a “LeBron Stopper” to consistently give James a hard time. Dallas had Shawn Marion, San Antonio had Kawhi Leonard and Golden State had Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Unfortunately, Indiana has nobody even close to this level of defensive prowess. In LeBron’s four games against Indiana this season, he averaged 28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. However, he averaged a poor 19% from three and 6.8 turnovers per game.
The Indiana Pacers aren’t a stellar defensive team (14th DRTG in the NBA, 105.6) overall and don’t have many great wing defenders. Oladipo and Darren Collison are very good defenders but they aren’t big or strong enough to contain James. Glenn Robinson III is not a horrible defender but he can’t contain James. Lance Stephenson or Bojan Bogdanovic probably can’t guard him either. Someone needs to step up on defense if the Pacers want any semblance of a chance in this series.
Cleveland’s “Other Guys”
Conversely to the last key, we must remember that basketball is a five on five game. No matter who he is matched up with, LeBron will get his. Cleveland needs other guys to step up and carry some of the load on offense. Outside of LeBron James, the Cavaliers don’t have many guys who can create their own shot. Jordan Clarkson is the only one who can reliably do so; Rodney Hood can create his own shot a bit as well. James accounts for an absurd 49.5% of his team’s total assists. The closest Cavalier to that mark is Jose Calderon at 24.2%. As much as a superhuman as LeBron James is, he cannot stay on the floor forever. The Cavaliers need to find another playmaker to supplement the offense. Indiana has two very solid defensive guards in Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo, so offense from that position will be even tighter for Cleveland.
Besides LeBron James, Myles Turner is the absolute key to this series. Victor Oladipo is going to get buckets. We all know this. Something we do not know, though, is how Turner will perform. Turner had a good season (12.7 points, 6.4 points, 1.8 blocks) but did not make the jump to stardom that many thought he would. He has nights where he disappears and he has nights where he looks like an NBA star. Turner had an average series against Cleveland last season, averaging 10.8 points 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks on 43.2% from the field. Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance could have a tough time defending Turner, especially on the perimeter. Turner’s scoring, along with his defense, could be the difference in the series.
Bold Prediction: Cavaliers lose one game by at least 15
For one game, likely in Indiana, the Cavaliers will lose by at least 15 points. Cleveland has been inconsistent on defense all year and have had trouble guarding high-level guards. The most Cleveland lost to Indiana this year is by 17 and I could easily see it happening again. Victor Oladipo will go off for a 35+ point game.
LeBron James led teams do not lose in the first round. Period. They may not be a top seed in the east but LeBron James is LeBron James. Indiana had an excellent season and should be excited about the future. Although Indiana may be one of James’ toughest first-round matchups, they are simply no match for one of the greatest of all time. Cavaliers win in six.
Ben Pfeifer is the Managing Editor of the Colts for Full Press Coverage, the AFC South Division Editor, and head NBA editor. Want to continue the discussion? Contact Ben Pfeifer on Twitter @Ben_Pfeifer_, @FPC_NBA and @FPC_Colts.