Now that the playoffs are here, we are finally going to learn about the Cavaliers. Is there defense actually going to be there downfall? Did LeBron play too many minutes? Is everything really going be okay?
Here are three things to watch for in Cavs-Pacers that will help paint a clearer picture of the 2016-17 Cavs.
How will the Cavs’ defense look?
The Cavs’ defense wasn’t good in the regular season no matter how you want to spin it. For the year, Cleveland finished 22nd with the same rating as the lowly Brooklyn Nets. Since the All-Star break, Cleveland finished 29th and just .1 points better than the Lakers, who were actively trying to lose games. By comparison, the Cavs were 10th during the regular season last year and 12th after the All-Star break.
The Pacers might be an ideal first round opponent for Cleveland to implement Tyronn Lue’s secret strategy or just generally implement other fixes that gets the defense in shape. They did finish the year 15th in offensive rating, but aren’t particularly overwhelming or creative. What they do is pretty straightforward and lead by Paul George; if the Cavs’ defense is going to be okay come the Finals or even in ensuing series should they advance, shutting down Indiana in this series would be a good sign.
Most importantly, there’s no way this series plays out without LeBron being forced to engage in 1 vs. 1 battles with Paul George on both ends. He’ll attack in isolation a fair amount - 17.5 percent of his attempts came in isolation, good for 14th in the league - and there will be a lot of LeBron (and probably Richard Jefferson) defending him.
But look for him to run through screens to get open for spot-up threes as detailed by SB Nation’s Mike Prada. Stopping this involves working through screens and communicating - two things the Cavs haven’t exactly done a lot of in the regular season.
Will the real J.R. Smith please stand up?
For on-court and off-court reasons, J.R. Smith has had a very up and down season. His defense, which was essential last year, has been unaware and undisciplined for most of this year.
For instance, here’s Smith just not realizing when to switch after Jameer Nelson blows by him, giving Gary Harris a wide open three:
And in the same game, here’s Smith helping way too far off Harris as Wilson Chandler cuts. Maybe he slips, but it looks more like he was too far off wasn’t in proper position to close out:
These are situations Smith will be put in against Indiana. Monta Ellis, for all of his faults, can drive and break down the Cavs’ defense off the dribble. Lance Stephenson can do some of the same. And C.J. Miles, who loves going against the Cavs, is particularly dangerous. Here’s him burning the Cavs off a screen during the team’s recent game. Smith will have to fight through screens like this all series:
And will Smith’s three-point shot return? He’s at 35.6 percent on the year after hitting 40 percent last year and was 6-27 from three over the final four games.
A big bounce back series for Smith would big for the Cavs as they (presumably) advance deep into the playoffs.
How much LeBron will we see at the five?
On the year, the Cavs have played a total of 113 minutes with lineups featuring LeBron and no big man, per NBAwowy. That accounts for less than 1 percent of Cleveland’s total lineups on the year.
Shifting LeBron to the five - probably with Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson and either J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert - is one of the Cavs’ more interesting lineup tweaks. This is particularly true if Channing Frye struggles to defend and rebound against Myles Turner and Pacers’ bigs when he enters the game as part of LeBron-plus-bench groups.
It has inherent defensive and rebounding shortcoming, yes. But it’s one of the Cavs’ last untapped offensive-minded tweaks and puts LeBron in positions of power. Particularly if Lue keeps Shumpert off the floor - something they may be hesitant to do because they trust his defense - James will be surrounded by shooting on all sides with Williams there to help him run the pick and roll. He used it for small spurts a few weeks back before moving away from it as the Cavs rested to close the season.
Lue indicated at Friday’s practice that there won’t be any rotation adjustments until something in the series causes him to make a change. If Frye struggles at any point - and, to be fair, he finished the season strong - look for Lue to go small.