The Cavaliers have LeBron James. The Indiana Pacers didn’t.
Things didn’t go as swimmingly in the Cavaliers first round sweep against Indiana as people might have hoped. Cleveland gave up a great look to C.J. Miles for a chance to steal Game 1, blew an big lead in Game 2, fell behind by 25 points at half in Game 3, and a calamitous turnover from J.R. Smith nearly sent Game 4 to overtime.
This wasn’t your typical sweep, and the numbers back that up.
Cavaliers outscored the Pacers by just 16 points in the series. There has never been a smaller margin in a four-game sweep.— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) April 23, 2017
Why did it play out this way? Well, there were quite a few mitigating factors.
First, the Pacers played really, really well. Paul George played like a top-five player in this series, and the Cavaliers declined to put their best defensive weapon, LeBron James on him.
George averaged 28.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists for the series, with his assists serving as a function of the Cavaliers willingness to trap him off the pindown screens that were brutalizing the Cavaliers early in the series. George launched 10 threes a game in this series and hit 43 percent of them. That’s absolutely nuts - suspect Cavaliers defense or not.
Meanwhile, for the Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving’s jumper completely abandoned him after one of his best years shooting behind the arc. Irving launched 8.0 threes per game, which is a healthy number for a player with the pull-up prowess that he possesses. Unfortunately, he only made 1.8 of those attempts in these four games, good for 21.9 percent.
Irving’s shooting wasn’t the only woe for the Cavaliers. The team shot a brutal 72 percent from the line in the series, and left plenty of room for improvement at the charity stripe and allowed Indiana to stay in games that should have been out of range.
To make matters worse, Indiana brutalized Cleveland on the offensive boards. Indiana pulled down 28.3 of their own misses in this series, good for second in the Playoffs as of now. For a frame of reference, Indy had the 24th best offensive rebound rate during the regular season.
Basically, the Cavaliers didn’t make it easy on themselves in this series, as they are wont to do. That’s not to say there weren’t strong performers for the team.
Deron Williams averaged 8.3 points on 77 percent shooting from the field while putting together his most consistent stretch as a scorer since joining the team. Channing Frye shot 46.7 percent from three while dragging Myles Turner out of the lane and creating spacing for the Cavaliers ball handlers to get into the paint. Tristan Thompson grabbed over six offensive boards per game while manhandling Turner on the glass.
Even Iman Shumpert was pressed into action and re-earned a spot in the rotation with his strong work on George defensively while playing within himself on the offensive end (which is to say, very few ill-advised forays to the rim that end in turnovers or bricks.)
That said, the reason this series ended in four games instead of five or six, outside of some good-old-fashioned random luck, was that LeBron James happens to wear a Cavaliers uniform.
James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.0 blocks per game in this series, leading the series in every category except rebounds, where he followed Tristan Thompson’s 11 per game for a second-place finish.
LeBron was an absolute maestro in this series, and this isn’t a situation where the team is up against an opponent without a defender to throw at him. Paul George, though burdened with a heavy load on offense, is known as one of the better defenders in the NBA when locked in. LeBron made mincemeat of anyone the Pacers threw at him.
Poor Jeff Teague regularly was switched onto James, especially early in the series as the team tried to stay home on the Cavaliers cadre of shooters and LeBron posted and toasted both Teague and Lance Stephenson when either smaller guard was placed on him.
Even when George was the primary man, LeBron used his strength to create space and finish around the basket.
Thaddeus Young did a better job than anybody could have expected when switched onto James, but his speed disadvantage showed whenever James could get a head of steam.
What was even more unfair, however, was LeBron’s shooting. He shot 45 percent from distance on five attempts a game, and almost none of them were of the easy spot-up variety.
It’s profoundly unfair when LeBron is shooting quite that well from distance, especially on pull-up and out-of-rhythm jumpers, and he supplemented this insane scoring with the kind of distributing that makes him so tough to guard.
Even as James excelled in the halfcourt, he proved that he remains one of the most thunderous finishers in transition that the game will ever see.
His second half of Game 3 when he scored 28 points, dished seven assists and snagged eight rebounds with zero turnovers while not resting for a single second was somehow simultaneously the microcosm and macrocosm of how insanely valuable he was in this series.
The Cavaliers have a big margin for error, but through the Pacers playing unbelievably well at points, Paul George playing like a superstar, Kyrie’s shot abandoning him and the same old defensive woes plaguing the team, that margin was shrunk considerably.
That’s not to say it can’t get better for the supporting cast. In fact, it almost certainly will. Kyrie Irving isn’t a 20 percent shooter from distance and the Cavaliers are still revving into gear, even after one round of the playoffs.
The Pacers, against almost any other team with this set of circumstances, would have taken a game or two. But the Cavaliers had LeBron James, and they did not, and sometimes, it’s just that simple.