NBA Playoffs 2018: Overthrowing the King
After a questionable offseason and a pleasantly surprising regular season, the Indiana Pacers have played themselves into a 2-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in their first round match up. To be clear, for everyone who only saw the boxscore and did not watch the games, this Indiana team is no 2016 Toronto Raptors. They went into Cleveland and owned the home dogs in Game 1, nearly stole Game2, and ripped out the Cavs’ heart in Game 3 after being down as many as 17.
Certain deficiencies need to improve if Cleveland wants to stay alive in the postseason. For starters, their role players need to convert more of their three-point attempts. This is why the "LeBron + four shooters" is not working. This is because three of his four shooters have been just plain bad. In Game 3 from downtown the Cavs shooters performed as followed: J.R. Smith 2-8, Kyle Korver 0-3, Jeff Green 1-3, Jordan Clarkson 0-1, George Hill 0-2. As a team they are shooting 30.9 percent from three, and not including Kevin Love and LeBron they are shooting 24.6 percent.
This is partly thanks to Indiana’s mobile perimeter defenders getting out and contesting shots. But Cleveland is longer than Indiana at every perimeter position, and size aside, the Cavs have been blowing open looks. This is something that will come around, at least a little, since they shot 37.2 percent during the regular season.
Another obvious objective is to get Kevin Love more shot attempts as the game is winding down. In Game 3 he shot twice in the fourth quarter, both threes coming with less than three minutes left, hitting one of two. He is shooting 47 percent from beyond the arc in round one, and their only other offensive option resembling anything close to a star. They need to run more plays to get Kevin Love open.
Love is mobile enough to come off screens and hit a three over the ensuing smaller mismatched defender. He does not have the endurance to do it all game like smaller shooters such as Kyle Korver, JJ Redick or Klay Thompson for example, but here and there on a couple plays down the stretch the Cavaliers need to find a way to get him open looks at the hoop.
An adjustment Ty Lue should consider is putting Cedi Osman in the game, thus far totaling two minutes in the past three games. Osman is a solid defender, 36.8 percent from three, and he showed some chops when he played in the regular season. He is worth a look, especially when every other role player is serving up bricks from the field.
On the brightside for the Cavs, their defense is the best it has been all season. The Pacer guards, especially Victor Oladipo, have a move where they will pull the ball back to almost half court and do a small sprint to the three point line, stop on a dime, and pull up. They did this in the first two games, generating an non-negligible number of clean looks doing it. In Game 3, Smith, Hood, and Hill stood about half of a step outside the three point line, and not backing off, preventing them from creating an open look that way. Beyond that, they were relentless on the ball forcing a normally disciplined Pacer offense to turn the ball over 17 times. They also held Oladipo to 18 points, a series low for him.
Despite the low in scoring, Oladipo showed the his usual high energy. He still took his normal number of attempts, but was just forced into some tough misses by the Cavs defense. And to his credit he still found ways to score, getting to the free throw line eight times, sinking seven.
What was Cleveland’s weakness was Indiana’s strength. Their role players really stepped up. Bojan Bogdanovic finished with 30 points and seven threes, four of them coming in the final quarter. Thirty a game is too much to ask from Bojan in the rest of the series but he will always be a deep threat and dangerous in big moments.
Thaddeus Young was phenomenal. He hit a couple bunnies and putbacks in Game 3, finishing with twelve points, but he really shined on defense. Young had three steals and two blocks, but more importantly he was money when he got switched onto LeBron, forcing the King into tough shots. Bogdanovic and Lance Stephenson have been the primary defenders on James, and they can stay with him sometimes, but when LeBron wants to score, he is taking them into the post and embarrassing them. Young can move his feet and still has enough weight and strength where LeBron cannot just slam into his chest and knock him out-of-bounds.
The Pacers have not featured Myles Turner much on offense too much. He takes open jumpers when they’re there, but that is about it. And that's fine. He hits enough to keep the defense honest and he grabs some boards, but Turner is by far the biggest player on the floor whenever he is out there, since the corpse of Tristan Thompson has been relegated to the bench. Turner could bully Love and extend over the top of Larry Nance Jr. inside. He prefers to play facing the basket, but do not be surprised if Nate McMillan runs some action for Turner later in the series.
Indiana clearly has the upper hand in this series and can definitely upset the Cavaliers. If Nate McMillan did not take Oladipo out of the game for nine minutes after having two early fouls called on him in Game 2, a move that was unwarranted as Oladipo averaged only 2.3 fouls a game in 75 games this year, there can be in argument made that Indiana would be up 3-0 at this point.
If Cleveland loses game four on Sunday night, they will lose the series. Even though the they have a certain history with being down 3-1, this team is not the Cavalier team that rallied behind a Draymond Green nut shot to win three games in a row and a championship. They do not have the horses around LeBron to outplay the Pacers for three straight wins. Even if the series gets evened to 2-2, Indiana still has a good chance to put an end to LeBron’s dominance over the Eastern Conference.