Although the first round series between the second seed Cleveland Cavaliers and the seventh seed Indiana Pacers ended in 4-0 in the favor of the Cavs, the atmosphere of each game certainly felt the opposite. Despite sweeping the opposition once again, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked vulnerable, and at times inferior, to a Pacers squad overly reliant on Paul George. If the Cavs hope to advance to another Eastern Conference Finals, this is how they should (or shouldn’t) go about their business.
This play is a perfect example of the Cavaliers using LeBron’s incredible driving ability to gravitate defenders towards him, opening up shooters. Deron Williams sets a pin down screen in the corner for Channing Frye who floats towards the free throw line extended. Since Frye is a perimeter shooter, Seraphin is forced to follow him out to the line rather than sit inside. This creates space for Williams to push on a sharp cut towards LeBron, and as a result, Stephenson is trailing the play. Since LeBron is so adept at getting to the rim, Paul George is unable to hedge up on Williams’ cut, because this action would leave LeBron an open driving lane. As a result, all Paul George can do is reach too late, and with Stephenson trailing, Williams is able to step into a three.
This Irving-Thompson pick and roll action is designed as a decoy for a LeBron cut to the rim. As Irving brings the ball into the front court, Shumpert, Love, and James all overload the right side of the floor, giving Irving and Thompson room to operate. Thompson sends a pick directing Irving towards the baseline, and Turner does a good job on the hedge action, disallowing Irving to get to the rim. Irving drops a beautiful bounce pass to Thompson, who is in no position to score, but it is the responsibility of the help side to shift to Thompson and adjust accordingly. Paul George shifts off of LeBron to impede Thompson, but Miles does not rotate to the free man, instead sticking to Shumpert. This gives James a free running lane, and Thompson makes the simple pass giving Cleveland 2 points.
Here we see an example of an excellent ATO (after timeout) play, which utilizes deception and Irving’s knack at getting to the rack. JR Smith initiates the offense by clearing to the opposite wing, creating motion in the Indiana defense. Following Smith’s motion, Tristan Thompson comes from the opposite wing to fake a ball screen for Irving. Recognizing Irving’s ability to drive, Turner sets himself up in position to deny Kyrie a direct path to the basket. When Thompson peels off in the direction of Korver, Turner is too far out of position to deny the pass from Irving. With Ellis trailing the play and Turner in no position to help, Korver is completely free for a three and calmly knocks it down.
This scenario occurs after Kyrie Irving scored in transition. The Pacers are shooting the ball well this game, and are looking to push, catching the Cavaliers defense off guard. George receives the ball at half-court, practically in line with 3 Cavaliers defenders. I know they just scored to quiet the Indiana crowd for a moment, but successful teams will not be lazy getting back on defense.
When George catches the ball, he has the downhill momentum, forcing his primary defender, JR Smith, to play catch up. With Smith trailing the play, Korver has two options. He can either give up an open path to the rim, or help off Ellis, who is only one pass away in the corner. Korver chooses the lesser of two evils and helps on PG, but as a result Ellis is wide open, George finds him, and Ellis makes them pay from downtown. If the Cavaliers want to make a serious run, they need to shore up their defensive discipline in order to prevent further defensive compromises such as the one Korver was placed in.
This was a rare offensive miscue for the Cavaliers, who were typically a well-oiled machine on offense throughout the series. LeBron James has the ball on the perimeter with 17 seconds remaining, and attempts to get a switch onto CJ Miles. Once he has Miles on him, 11 seconds remain on the shot clock. LeBron sizes him up, wasting time, making no aggressive moves towards the basket, until only 6 seconds remain on the clock. With the right side of the floor completely overloaded, the Pacers are able to easily rotate over in help defense, forcing LeBron to pass out of a double team. The Pacers are able to rotate on the right side, and the Cavaliers are unable to get a shot off before the clock expires. LeBron James is an otherworldly basketball player, but the Cavaliers struggle to score when the offense becomes too stagnant, as it did on this set. While a James isolation play is more often than not effective, the lack of off ball movement on the weak side made the offense too predictable and allowed the Pacers to recover easily.
Kyrie Irving has never been known as a good defender, but his play recognition and effort must improve. As Jeff Teague brings the ball across the timeline, Irving is far too willing to go underneath the Myles Turner screen. At this point in the game, Teague was 4/5 from the floor with 10 points, so diving so deep under the screen already seems like a questionable decision. Teague is open for the jumper, but opts to drive, since Irving is still pinned by Turner. This drive forces a far too easy switch, which stemmed from Kyrie’s decision to not try and fight over the screen. After recognizing the switch, Teague pulls the ball out and resets the offense. While the Pacers are resetting, the Cavaliers do a decent job of switching in the post, as Irving and Love interchange who they are guarding in the post. Now, Irving is on Thaddeus Young. Ellis recognizes this and feeds Young in the post, and this is where the Cavaliers defense goes all wrong. Love provides help defense from the opposite block, and JR Smith does a decent job at rotating over from Paul George to cover Love’s man. Tristan Thompson, however, gravitates too heavily towards the paint, and leaves Jeff Teague and Paul George wide open on the perimeter.
With 4 defenders in the paint and only 1 on the perimeter, Young wisely throws a skip pass to George. Thompson is forced to all out sprint in order to recover to PG, who then easily swings the ball to an open Teague. With Teague receiving the pass, James is forced to step up, leaving his original man, Ellis, wide open. Irving is so deep in the paint that he is forced to come out too strong on his closeout, giving Monta an easy driving lane. Love helps from one pass away, and Ellis dishes it off to Young who throws down the uncontested dunk. This play demonstrates problems the Cavaliers have with rotations on defense, something they need to shore up before the next round begins.
When LeBron pulled out this chase down block in the third quarter it completely sucked the gravity out of the building. The Pacers lost any momentum they had, allowing the Cavaliers to take control of the game and the series.
More often than not, the Cavaliers looked like a dominant force in the first round. The offense was cohesive and flowing, and they were able to ratchet up the defense when necessary. While they were not always executed to perfection, the concept of doubling Paul George off of any action, was a smart coaching decision made by Ty Lue, for the Pacers playoff hopes rested solely on the shoulders of PG. If the Cavaliers are able to shore up their defensive rotations and assignments, they will be in prime position to emerge from the East and challenge whoever comes out of the West. And, as always, having LeBron James certainly helps.