I certainly would not have guessed that I’d be writing this week’s piece while watching Game 4 of the Cavs-Raptors series with Cleveland leading by 21 in the 3rd quarter*. I’m pretty sure anyone who watched the Cavs-Pacers series wouldn’t have thought so, either. And yet, here I am.
*I wrote this last week before Game 1 of the conference finals, when my computer crapped out on me. Updated thoughts later.
So, what the f*ck changed? Let’s talk about it.
The Cavaliers like to keep basketball fans on our toes. I’m usually not too worried if the Cavs are losing during the regular season. Their defense is often questionable, and they tend to look pretty messy on the court. During the regular season I’m about as worried as Ty Lue looks 90% of the time (not worried at all, lulz)
Come playoff time, LeBron is completely locked in, the rest of the team decides to make defense a thing and everyone pretty much has their role figured out.
Give the Pacers credit
It sure didn’t look that way this year, though. The Cavaliers’ defense was absolutely abysmal the entire season – the second worst in the league, in fact. It’s likely for this reason that Ty Lue loaded up on more defensive lineups in the first round series against the Pacers. In doing so, their offense struggled and struggled hard. The team looked sloppy and James had to carry even more offensive weight than he usually does. Their “better” defense left much to be desired offensively, and still wasn’t enough to stop Indiana for 3 games, forcing a game 7.
The Pacers deserve credit, though. They’re like, a really good team. Better and more balanced, overall, than the Cavaliers in my opinion. Victor Oladipo has had an incredible breakout season, and young players like Turner and Sabonis shone, too.
They were well-equipped to take on the Cavs, thanks to their defense. Thaddeus Young is an incredible defender, and was huge in keeping Love quiet offensively (as well as Love’s thumb injury). Young is much quicker than Sabonis, and was able to defend Love both inside the paint and beyond the arc.
The Cavs still had LBJ, though, unfortunately for the Pacers. James proved to be otherworldly once again, with an insane Game 7 performance to defeat Indiana. James expressed that the series left him drained – this is the hardest James has ever had to work in a first-round series.
Because the team was forced to 7 games, fans wondered whether or not the Cavs had it in them to defeat the top-ranked Raptors in the second round. I had begun to lose faith for sure. I thought there was a great possibility that Cleveland wouldn’t be in the Eastern Conference finals.
Last week, SNL spoofed the Cavaliers in an un-aired skit about “the other Cavaliers”. I thought it was savage as hell but it made me chuckle.
But something clicked. Some things clicked.
The matchup with Toronto was much better for Cleveland. The Indiana Pacers play an extremely physical game and have an extremely scrappy group of players. As I mentioned earlier, Thaddeus Young was huge in restricting Love’s points. Valanciunas simply didn’t have what it takes to stop Kevin Love in all the areas in which he is dangerous.
LeBron was no longer the only player contributing significantly on offense. After the first game of the series the Cavs’ number 2 scorer, Kevin Love, came alive. Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith provided offensive boosts as well. George Hill returned to this series after sitting the majority of the first series out with back spasms and he was fantastic. The Cavs looked more fluid with their game – they looked purposeful and in sync. It was refreshing and fun to watch, and brought my faith back in the team.
Cleveland was looking good going into the Eastern Conference Finals, and Cavs fans were feeling confident. The Cavs had won 6 playoff games in a row, but the Celtics had other plans, and boy oh boy, did they make that apparent.
Cleveland was defeated in game 1, 108-83. It was a beatdown, to say the very least. Boston outscored Cleveland 36-18 in the first quarter. Kevin Love was Cleveland’s leading scorer of the game with just 17 points.
Get LBJ going
So what can Cleveland do to bounce back? Get LeBron going, for one. LeBron James had the worst plus-minus of any player on the team, and had just 15 points (5 for 16), 7 rebounds and as many turnovers. Cleveland’s offense is what wins them games, but their defense looked especially lazy in game 1 against Boston. They were making switches for no reason, resulting in plenty of open lanes for Boston.
The Cavs obviously have the offensive machine that is LeBron James, but contrary to popular belief, it is possible for him to have off-games. Marcus Morris defended him beautifully, and James was unable to get the easy buckets he’s used to. He seemed unusually passive during the game, which I know will change moving forward.
Make shots behind the arc
A huge part of the Cavaliers’ game, as well as many other teams in the NBA, is their ability to shoot the 3-ball. They made just 4 of 26 (15.4%) attempted shots from behind the arc, which simply will not work if they want to beat this very talented Celtics team.
Cleveland was the third in the league for three-pointers made during the regular season, so it’s an integral part of their success. The Cavs rely on shooters like Korver, Love, and Smith to boost the team offensively, so when Korver and Smith combine for 1 of 8 from three (4 of 15 from the field), the team hurts badly.
Many of their missed shots were wide open – I don’t think they will shoot as poorly in the upcoming games, but damn. Not a good look.
Control Boston’s youngsters
Two Celtics players who continue to prove themselves over and over are Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Brown was Boston’s leading scorer in Sunday’s game, and Tatum shot 54.5% from the field, had 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 block. These two players are incredibly skilled and possess the ability to score in many different ways and create plays. Cleveland’s defense has to find a way to control them, or they’ll find themselves in big trouble once again.
Al Horford was brilliant during Sunday’s game. Kevin Love is really tough to defend – he’s a center who can shoot 3’s, bully just about anyone in the paint, make sick cross-court passes, and he’s super handsome (unrelated, but still).
Horford held him down defensively, but also took advantage of the fact that Love isn’t the greatest defender. Horford also possesses the ability to make threes and drive to the basket, and he did just that easily against Love. Kev’s gotta get his shit together and make Horford work a little harder if the Cavs want to take this series.
Can the Cavs do it?
I think it’s safe to say that Cleveland is going to come back with a vengeance in Game 2. LeBron is certainly going to be a force and if he’s able to truly lock in, he’ll be able to control the game. LeBron has taken questionable teams to the finals before, and I think he can certainly do it again. Things can change drastically game to game, but in this series, I think it’s safe to say LeBron will not turn Boston into LeBoston as he did in Toronto.