The Indiana Pacers walloped the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, waltzing into Quicken Loans Arena and calmly smacking around the three-time-defending Eastern Conference champions in a statement-making 18-point win that wrested away Cleveland’s home-court advantage in the best-of-seven set. That Indiana dictated the terms of engagement against the Cavs shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise; after all, the Pacers beat Cleveland three times in four tries during the regular season, served notice that they were for real in the final week of the season by similarly stomping the Golden State Warriors, and didn’t really do anything in Game 1 that they haven’t been doing with regularity, albeit without much fanfare, since October.
“We’ve been playing like this all year,” said All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, who scored a game-high 32 points and copped to feeling a little extra motivation owing to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert saying last summer that the Pacers “could have down better” than Oladipo and center Domantas Sabonis in the pre-free-agency blockbuster that sent Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder. (The Cavs’ owner might have been just a tad salty that his own attempts to land George apparently came up one text message short.) “Been playing hard at both ends all year. It’s just that it hasn’t been magnified. It’s the playoffs now … so everybody sees it. So, it’s like, it’s kind of shocking to everybody.”
It certainly seemed shocking to the Cavs, who half-stepped and misfired their way to a miserable 14 first-quarter points to set a desultory tone for the day. After cutting the deficit to seven points early in the fourth — it’s the NBA, everyone makes a run, especially when they’ve got LeBron James on their side — Cleveland buckled again in the face of Indy’s pressure, managing just 15 points on 6-for-18 shooting in the final frame as Oladipo (10 fourth-quarter points) propelled the Pacers past the finish line and handed LeBron his first opening-round loss in six years.
As jarring as that is, James adopted a relaxed tone after the game, choosing to emphasize the other side of that statistic — that his teams are now 24-2 in the playoffs’ opening round since the start of the 2011-12 season — as a reason not to get really worried or overly concerned.
“I’ve always stayed even-keeled with the postseason,” James said after registering his 20th career playoff triple-double with 24 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. “I mean, I’m down 0-1 in the first round. I was down 3-1 in the Finals. So I’m the last guy to ask about how you’re going to feel the next couple days.” […]
Game 1, according to James, was a rude awakening for some of his teammates getting their first real taste of competing in the playoffs on a team with a target on its back as a title contender.
“We had some guys in their first time out there playing in this setting, and they definitely … Like I told you guys, you always ask me, ‘Is there anything you can tell them [about the playoffs]?’ Listen, experience is the best teacher, and they got it today,” James said. “I think everybody is going to be a lot more calm and a lot more precise in what we want to do, too. So it’s definitely a feel-out game. We’ll see what they’re going to do.”
What’s helped the Pacers so wildly outperform our meager preseason expectations, as Seerat Sohi excellently notes at SB Nation, is their facility with that sort of on-the-fly evolution. They have, at different points this season, played at uptempo and glacial paces, organized around a perimeter-heavy attack and pounded it into the post (we see you there, Big Al), and won by wreaking defensive havoc and by putting up points in bunches.
At issue for the Cavs, though, is what they’re going to do next — namely, how they’re going to get an offense that finished the season ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (and second after reshuffling their roster at February’s trade deadline) unstuck after a punchless Game 1 performance.
The Cavs shot just 38.5 percent from the field in Game 1 and a dismal 8-for-34 from 3-point range, including a 2-for-10 mark from the short corners where LeBron-led teams typically light up their opposition. Cleveland’s just not going to beat good teams consistently with its defense; the Cavs have to overwhelm opponents with offense, and they can’t afford a repeat performance if they hope to salvage a split before heading on the road to Indianapolis. From Jason Lloyd of The Athletic:
“We had some good shots we didn’t make,” Tyronn Lue said. “A couple were probably rushed.”
Jose Calderon, for as long as he’s been in the league, has never advanced beyond the first round. His strong play to close the regular season forced Lue to use him in the opener, but he looked overmatched by the playoffs, too. Calderon, [Jordan] Clarkson and Kyle Korver combined to shoot 0-for-8 on 3s. Hood was 1-for-4.
“We just can’t shoot as tight,” [Rodney] Hood said. “I think tonight we was tight with all our shots. I think next game we’ll be more relaxed. We’ll come out and we’ll play better.”
In fairness, it’d be hard for them to play much worse, and you’d be hard-pressed to find too many fans or pundits who’d bet against a LeBron-led team coming away with four wins in six tries against any Eastern Conference opponent, even one as solid and utterly unshaken as these Pacers. And yet: these Cavs are diminished, lacking cohesion and consistency due to injuries and their midstream shuffle, and they’ve yet to find a capable secondary offensive engine to replace former All-Star point Kyrie Irving. (Who, as you might recall, played kind of an important role in that whole “coming back from 3-1 down in the Finals” thing.)
Maybe the Cavs come out on Wednesday and set the nets on fire, stifle Oladipo in the pick-and-roll game, and tilt the Myles Turner-and-Thaddeus Young vs. Kevin Love-and-Jeff Green matchup back the other way to change the dynamic in the series. Then again … maybe they don’t. And maybe we shouldn’t be stunned if that’s the way it unfolds.
“We don’t feel like the underdog,” Pacers guard Cory Joseph said after the win.
You can’t blame LeBron for not being worried. But you can’t blame Cavs fans if they’re just a bit more perturbed in the hours before Game 2.
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