By J.M. Poulard
The Cleveland Cavaliers completed a historic comeback against the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of their first-round series matchup thanks to the herculean efforts of LeBron James.
With a 119-114 win, the Cavs took a 3-0 series lead on the strength of a signature James performance where the four-time MVP produced 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
On a night where James passed Kobe Bryant for third all-time on the postseason scoring list, Cleveland needed LeBron to play like the best player in the sport with his teammates mostly struggling against a testy Pacers club.
25 – Largest halftime deficit overcome in postseason history
1.2%-Cavaliers chance to win at half according to ESPN In-Game Win Probability
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 21, 2017
The Cavs produced a horrific first-half output that stemmed from terrible defensive focus, and it led to Indiana scorching Cleveland for 74 points by halftime.
Through the first two quarters, the Pacers scored at will in the paint (22) and got whatever they wanted from deep (10-for-17 shooting) on their way to building a seemingly insurmountable 25-point lead.
Indiana’s success was the product of a great team play and superior hustle when compared to Cleveland’s effort. Indeed, the Pacers were first to every 50-50 ball and controlled the boards (26 to 17 edge at the half) because the Cavs were not prepared to match the home team’s intensity.
Kevin Love missed numerous box out opportunities and was slow on a few defensive rotations, all the while missing six of his nine shot attempts.
Much like Love, Kyrie Irving’s night produced its own issues. He consistently got matched up with bigger players and never got any help from his bigs on the boards, which led to offensive rebounding opportunities for the Pacers. One way to counteract this challenge would have been to get one of his teammates to quickly switch players with him before a shot went up to ensure no advantage was surrendered in terms of rebounding position, but Irving never managed to communicate the switch during play.
Further compounding issues for the Cavs, Irving got trapped into old offensive habits. He became a ball stopper and routinely looked for his shot at the expense of his teammates. It isn’t necessarily an infrequent occurrence, but what made it worse was that he consistently settled for difficult contested shots (3-for-12 shooting in first half) instead of attacking the paint, which creates passing lanes and second-chance scoring chances.
Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue gave his starters another crack at the Pacers after halftime and then pulled his big guns late in the third quarter where he asked LeBron and his bench players to carry the team the rest of the way…and they delivered.
The Cavs stopped trapping pick-and-rolls and instead opted to simply switch on the play and keep all eyes on Pacers star Paul George who tortured Cleveland to the tune of 36 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.
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The change in defensive coverage “tricked” George into looking for his own shot against defenses loaded up to swarm his drive attempts. As result, Indiana’s wrong role players ended up having take some relatively tough shots.
Indeed, Lance Stephenson, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young and Monta Ellis combined to miss all seven of their fourth-quarter attempts from long range. Keep in mind, that quartet is not proficient from downtown, and yet it ended up having to fire away from deep because those were the only looks available because of Cleveland’s execution and attention to detail.
It’s worth noting that the Cavs didn’t just execute a better second-half game plan. Their defensive intensity was far better, they captured loose balls and played with a sense of urgency the starters simply did not have.
That partly explains how the Cavaliers erased a 25-point halftime lead on the road with Irving and Love both remaining on the bench in the entire fourth quarter.
The other part of the explanation?
— NBA (@NBA) April 21, 2017
The Chosen One took over late in the third quarter and never relinquished his tight grip on the Pacers. James beautifully orchestrated the offense and set up teammates for long-range bombs, created high-percentage scoring chances for himself and obliterated every Indiana defensive scheme.
LeBron blew by them on switches, connected on four-of-eight treys when they sagged off him and dared Indiana to send help his way with the likes of Channing Frye and Kyle Korver on the floor. When the defense stayed at home, James waltzed into the paint.
“That’s what we want,” Korver said, per Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor. “We want to give LeBron space to really operate and do what he does so well. Obviously having shooters out there gives him space but also he’s able to be such an amazing passer, he sees the whole floor and it’s hard to guard.”
In the second half alone, James amassed 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds without registering a turnover, and his play left teammates in awe.
“He still amazes me,” Irving shared. “The question is can he ever amaze you guys? Every time does something amazing he’s always compared to someone else, other performances. But tonight, that was unbelievable. Another historic win for the Cavs organization. He does unbelievable things.”
It’s this kind of performance that offers a clear reminder to the Eastern Conference as it pertains to what the playoff landscape truly is: James’ Cavaliers and everyone else.
For all the talk about Cleveland’s porous defense, if LeBron can turn it on when needed to produce like this and pick apart opponents with lethal shooting, it might not matter what team they Cavaliers face in the east because none of them have the firepower to match Cleveland; and none of them have a player capable of going toe-to-toe with King James.
George, arguably the second-best player in the east, was armed with a 25-point lead at home with a chance to narrow the postseason gap with James, and yet, PG ultimately could not best his rival in a contest where Irving and Love watched the entire final period from the bench.
Perhaps the Cavs will march all the way to the Finals.