LeBron James and Paul George meet up once again in the playoffs.

They figured this was going to be a tricky season to navigate. Injuries are an obstacle for everybody, not just the NBA’s defending champions. And then the Cleveland Cavaliers figured that boredom – or to put it a bit less flippantly, a lack of focus – might be a problem over the course of six months and 82 regular-season games.

But there was something else going on, something that hit the Cavaliers hard soon after the All-Star break and lingers to this day. As they fiddled with rotations, working to embrace some new faces to the second unit, the Cavs’ defense began to slide. And they started losing at a rate that was, if not alarming, at least disquieting.

From 40-16 on Feb. 23 (the night of the trade deadline), Cleveland went 11-15 the rest of the way. They went from outscoring opponents 111.5-105.9 to getting outscored 107.9-109.8 in those final 26 games. When the Cavaliers essentially conceded the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to Boston by sitting LeBron James and others in the season’s final days and headed into the postseason on a four-game losing streak, not even the most confident Cavs fan could claim this was how they imagined the title defense would go.

Now they’ll rely on a champion’s ability to shift gears, along with the mixed bag of challengers within the East bracket, to regain an edge that’s two months gone. The Cavs will aim to do it against a familiar first-round foe, a streaky Indiana Pacers team that snagged the No. 7 seed on the season’s final night and enters on a five-game winning streak.

3 quick questions and answers:

– Are the Cavaliers as vulnerable as they looked down the stretch?

The teams that ranked lower than Cleveland in defensive rating (108.0, 22nd) are all headed to the draft lottery. Their work at that end over the aforementioned final 26 games, 111.6, would have had them dead last over the full season. Even with James, Kevin Love and others talking confidently about cleaning that up now that the games are more meaningful, it has to rankle head coach Tyronn Lue, who was the team’s defensive coordinator before his promotion last season. Attempts to secure a rim protector – from Andrew Bogut to Larry Sanders and most recently Edy Tavares – have fallen flat, and it looks as if Cleveland – which became the third NBA team in history to make 1,000 3-pointers in a season and finished with 1,067 – will be trying to outscore the Pacers and everyone else it meets into June.

– Who guards LeBron?

LeBron vs. the Pacers actually harkens back to his days in Miami, so plenty has changed since he and the Heat butted heads with Indiana 19 times over three playoffs. But just in time, Pacers boss Larry Bird went retro, signing James nemesis Lance Stephenson in what so far has been a boost to his Indiana teammates’ energy and confidence. Others from Paul George to Thaddeus Young to Glenn Robinson III will likely take their turns (and the harsh reality is that none of them qualifies as a ‘Bron stopper), but you can count on some network video flashbacks, if not on-court re-enactments, of Stephenson’s desperate attempts to mess with James, including outrageously blowing in the Cleveland superstar’s ear.

– What should we make of Indiana’s playoff berth?

The Pacers, less than two weeks ago, were three games under .500 and a better bet for the lottery than for the seventh seed. Then they rebounded and won their final five games by an average of 15 points each. Much of the heavy lifting has been done by George, who upped his production from 21.7 ppg and 37.8 three-point percent to 26.8 ppg in March and 32.8 ppg in April, while shooting better than 42 percent from the arc. The crew around him is a mixed bag, with young big Myles Turner hitting a wall, point guard Jeff Teague looking more comfortable, C.J. Miles dangerous from distance, Monta Ellis struggling to justify his minutes and Young and Al Jefferson hampered by injuries. But stretching the season was important to Indiana’s hopes of keeping George around after next season. Now, with Stephenson around for entertainment value, the Pacers are playing with house money.

The number to know

32.3 – LeBron James averaged 32.3 points in the season series, the best mark among Eastern Conference players who played at least two games against the Pacers. James shot 37-for-62 (60 percent) in his three games vs. Indiana, getting 30 of his 62 shots in the restricted area, where he’s been one of the league’s best shooters. Paul George is thought of as one of James’ best matchups and outscored him 43-41 when these teams went to overtime on April 2. But according to SportVU, James shot 14-for-27 (52 percent) with George defending him this season. The Pacers ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency for five straight seasons, but no team took a bigger step backward on that end of the floor this year. They fell from third to 16th defensively, allowing 6.1 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.

Making the pick

As streaky as the Pacers have been at various points – losing four, winning five, winning seven, losing six and now the five-game run – they were 1-3 against Cleveland. They lack the depth and the defensive counters to James and the array of shooters to whom he’ll kick the ball. Cleveland needs time to get back its edge, and the best way to do that is to carve out practice days before the conference semifinals. This one’s quick. Cavaliers in 4.

By Steve Aschburner for NBA.com

First appeared on NBA.com Global


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