By Matthew Way
Though they again held on for a win against the Indiana Pacers in Game 2, the Cleveland Cavaliers and their lackluster defense showed they are not the same team they were during last year’s championship run.
Through the first three quarters, LeBron James and the Cavaliers’ starters looked like they were going to coast to a blowout victory. Cleveland outscored Indiana in each of the first three quarters, and entered the fourth quarter with a sizable 18-point lead.
James and Kyrie Irving were dynamic in the first half, creating high-percentage shots on nearly every possession through dribble penetration. The Pacers’ perimeter defenders provided little resistance and the help defense was always consistently late, leading to easy looks at the rim for Irving and James, and large passing lanes to spot-up shooters.
Those Cavaliers’ shooters made the Pacers pay for their slow help defense. Outside of Irving and James, Cleveland shot 9-for-19 from behind the three-point arc. Cleveland’s great shooting was due not just to dribble penetration, but because of how well their shooters moved the ball along the perimeter.
The Pacers closed out fairly well on the initial passes back out to the perimeter. And when they did, Cleveland quickly and decisively passed the ball along the perimeter until they found the best three-point shot available. The result showed up in the box score with James and Irving combining for less than half of the Cavaliers’ assists in Game 2.
The ball movement from the Cleveland role players is encouraging. In the regular season, the Cavs relied largely on Irving and James, who averaged 63.9 percent of the team’s assists, to create offense. When the Cavaliers are moving the ball like they did in the first half, their offense is nearly unstoppable.
In the third quarter, Cleveland took a much different approach, leaning heavily on Kevin Love’s post play when the Pacers went small with Lance Stephenson covering the Cavaliers’ power forward.
Five straight Cleveland offensive possessions ended with Love touching the ball and three of those five possessions ended with him shooting free throws. In total, the Love scored 10 points on those five possessions without having to leave the paint, outscoring the Pacers 10-2 during that two-minute stretch, and the Cavaliers’ lead ballooned to 19.
Then the fourth quarter happened.
Cleveland tried to play late game isolation basketball for much of the fourth quarter and their offense sputtered. Instead of swift perimeter ball movement, the Cavs were passing the ball, if at all, very late in the shot clock. Cleveland’s more predictable offense made defense easier for the Pacers, who got stops more consistently than they did all game.
When Indiana got stops, they pushed the tempo and exploited the Cavaliers’ transition defense. Cleveland struggled to find shooters in transition and semi-transition, much like they did during the regular season. Cleveland was dead last in transition defense this year, and it was easy to see why in Game 2 whenever the Pacers pushed the tempo.
There was little attention to detail. Cleveland defenders were watching the ball rather and not their Indiana counterparts drifting into open space. Cleveland players spent a lot of time looking around, waiting for someone else to stop the ball. Ball movement became easy for the Pacers, and consistent high-percentage shots turned into a 33-point fourth quarter for the Pacers.
The Cavaliers got just enough stops at the end of the game to hold on for the win, but their questionable defense showed up again in the fourth quarter. Two games into the playoffs, the Pacers punished simple defensive mistakes in the exact same way opponents did to Cleveland in the regular season. And, while they won both of those games against the Pacers, the defense must improve significantly if Cleveland hopes to successfully defend its title in June.