The Cleveland Cavaliers open the 2018 NBA Playoffs at home against the Indiana Pacers in identical fashion to last season.
But unlike 2017, the Pacers are led by Victor Oladipo, who has transformed himself into an All-NBA Caliber player in his first season in Indiana. Oladipo ended the season averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.4 steals per game on 48 percent shooting and 37 percent from three. Every single number was a career-high. His 31 percent usage rate ranked in the 98th percentile of all wings.
The Cavaliers and Pacers squared off four times this season, but every game happened before the Trade Deadline — making them largely irrelevant to this analysis.
Let’s jump right in with a preview of how the teams match-up.
Cavaliers on Defense
It’s only right that we begin with the much-maligned Cavs defense. The Cavs finished 29th in defensive rating this season (112) and 22nd following the Trade Deadline (though their 111.9 dRTG was essentially identical to the first half).
Indiana finished the season with a 109.3 oRTG (12th in the NBA), but struggled offensively after the All-Star Break — ranking a well-below average 23rd in oRTG down the stretch.
At its core, Nate McMillan’s offense revolves around ball screens for Oladipo to make a play. Indiana finished 37.6 percent of its offensive plays with ball screens — fourth most in the NBA.
Indiana often runs this action as a pick and pop for Myles Turner, whose 224 pick and pop possessions were second to only Marc Gasol this season. Turner is scoring 1.01 points per possession on these plays, but is often content to pop to the midrange as opposed to three-point range.
But Turner — much like the Pacers offense as a whole — has struggled on pick and pops since the All-Star Break. He has scored just 47 points on 65 pick and pop possessions (0.72 ppp).
The main culprit for this is how intricately tied Indiana’s offense is with its midrange shooting. The Pacers attempt more midrange shots than any team in the NBA (22.7 percent of their field goal attempts) and shot 43 percent on them this season.
But after the All-Star Break, they maintained their volume, but fell to just 39 percent on these shots (19th in the NBA). Indiana was just 12-21 in games where they shot worse than 40 percent from midrange.
In addition to Turner’s struggles, Oladipo shot just 38 percent on midrange jumpers post-ASB after shooting 43 percent on these shots before the Break.
The sheer frequency with which almost every Pacers’ rotation player takes midrange shots is staggering in today’s NBA:
Furthermore, it is readily apparent on film that this is a shot Indiana is completely comfortable taking
Although the Pacers’ shot profile does not favor three point attempts, they shoot it well from deep when they do take them. They take the 27th most threes in the NBA, but are shooting 37.6 percent from downtown, good for seventh best).
In addition, they are the second-best corner three-point shooting team in the NBA (42.7 percent) but only take six percent of their shot attempts from the corners.
In particular, Darren Collison shot 46.8 percent from deep this year — including 31/66 from the corners — to lead the NBA. Bojan Bogdanovic shoots 40 percent from deep (55/116 from the corners) and both Turner and Domantas Sabonis have range out to three.
On the flip side, Lance Stephenson (30.2 percent) and Thaddeus Young (32.4 percent) are players Cleveland can feel comfortable leaving open.
Indiana’s biggest strength offensively is their ability to push the ball in transition, especially following steals (more on that later). The Pacers added an NBA-best 4.1 points over average in transition and ran the 9th most of any team this season.
The break is largely simple: Driven by Oladipo, who shot a career-high 67 percent at the rim this season and Collison and Bogdanovic spacing out to three — they are a combined 80/178 (45 percent) from distance in transition.
Finally, the Pacers are not a team that is going to sacrifice possessions. They finished with the 6th lowest turnover rate this season, giving it away on just 13.8 percent of possessions.
The first, and most important, counter for the Cavs is likely starting Jeff Green on Oladipo defensively. While Oladipo has had a monster season, his strength and quickness advantage over most shooting guards has been mitigated when he’s checked by bigger guys.
Per Krishna Narsu’s research, Oladipo had just a 51.5 effective field goal percentage on 107 shot attempts when guarded by power forwards such as Jeff Green. Oladipo’s 46 effective field goal percentage when checked combined with George Hill’s tremendous length indicates we may also see Cleveland deploy that matchup.
Given Green on Oladipo, the rest of the defensive assignments fall in place. Hill will open on Collison, Hood on Bogdanovic, James on Young and Love on Turner.
Under Ty Lue, Cleveland’s playoff defensive philosophy has often been to get the ball out of the opponent’s best player’s hands and make his teammates beat you.
While the Cavs’ blitzing or high-hedging scheme has often caused problems in the regular season, the Pacers are a prime candidate to deploy this strategy. With Oladipo being the center of their offensive universe and the on-ball creation falling off around him, making Indiana’s other players win games looks like a great strategy.
And that’s before you consider the fact that the Pacers have already struggled with this defensive scheme.
Watch here as Oladipo’s first reaction to the blitz is to pick up his dribble, which puts him in a precarious position against Memphis’ defense:
With the action happening higher on the floor, Oladipo attempts to clear space by retreating rather than attacking Nikola Mirotic downhill:
Cleveland will be perfectly content to let either Turner or Sabonis catch the ball in the short roll as neither have flashed tremendous playmaking chops in the action:
Cleveland’s playoff defense is perfectly constructed to defend a singular talent like Oladipo. While Indiana has more shooters than some of Cleveland’s prior Eastern Conference opponents, an engaged James will be content to play free safety off non-shooters like Young and Stephenson on the weakside:
Finally, Cleveland’s much-discussed hapless transition defense prior to Trade Deadline has largely faded away. While still not perfect, the Cavs are allowing the 3rd fewest transition opportunities since overhauling the roster. Keeping Indiana out of transition will go a long way to slowing down the Pacers’ offense.
Cleveland on Offense
On the other side of the ball, Indiana is trending in the opposite direction. Despite finishing the season ranked 12th in defense (107.4 dRTG), the Pacers finished third in dRTG (104.3) following the All-Star Break.
The Pacers’ defense is fueled by forcing turnovers. They forced turnovers on 16.2 percent of opponent’s possessions this season (2nd in the NBA) and ramped it up to an NBA-best 17.5 percent of possessions after the All-Star Break.
The main engines behind this turnover frenzy are Oladipo and Young. When they share the floor, the Pacers force turnovers on 17.6 percent of opponent possessions.
Oladipo’s 3.1 percent steal rate ranks in the 99th percentile for all wings and Young’s 2.3 percent steal rate ranks in the 95th percentile of all bigs. They finished third and fourth, respectively, in Deflections Per Game.
Indiana largely deploys Oladipo as an off-ball defender — keeping him off the opponent’s best guard — so he can feast in the passing lanes:
The same goes for Young, who loves to collapse off his man on the perimeter to take away passes to the roll man following a ball screen:
This style of defense — heavy on off-ball gambles — allows Indiana to play a high-risk, high-reward style. In a play typical of their average coverage, watch how both Young and Oladipo collapse into the paint to take away the roller. This leaves an excellent three-point shooter in Wayne Ellington wide open on the perimeter:
As a result, Indiana allows the fifth most three-point attempts in the NBA and the 13th most corner three-point attempts. But opponents shot just 35.1 percent from deep.
A dive into the numbers revealed that opponents shot 32.6 percent on open threes this season (third worst) on 12.4 attempts per game. For reference, Cleveland shot 36.4 percent on open threes (11 per game). Indiana was 9-15 in games where opponents shot 38.5 percent or better from three — Cleveland’s average since the Trade Deadline.
This style of defense — combined with their scheme calling for an aggressive drop by the big at the level of the ball — left them as one of the worst teams defending both Cuts and Spot Up opportunities this year.
Watch how Robinson overplays the Ellington pindown (similar to Cleveland’s plays for Korver) and allows him to slide backdoor:
And notice how bringing Sabonis to the level of the ball forces Trevor Booker to drop into the paint, leaving Serge Ibaka all alone from downtown:
Both of these weaknesses set up well for a Cleveland offense that ranked first in points per possession on both Cuts and Spot Ups this season.
Indiana also struggles to clear the defensive backboard. Myles Turner’s block rate (3.4 percent) ranks in the 91st percentile of all bigs, but his block chasing often leaves him out of position on the glass.
Turner grabs just 17 percent of available defensive rebounds (45th percentile for bigs). The Pacers allow offensive rebounds on 27 percent of opponent misses in the halfcourt with Turner on the floor. This could be an area in which the Cavs look to deploy either Larry Nance or Tristan Thompson.
The biggest question for Indiana is who guards LeBron James. In the four regular season meetings, Boganovic handled the lion’s share of the duties — guarding James on 53 percent of his offensive possessions.
On one hand, this allows Young to continue to roam off-ball, but on the other hand it gives Cleveland an immense advantage without having to set a ball screen to force a switch.
Cleveland will likely hunt Stephenson and Collison when they are on the floor and may want to make Oladipo guard James in the post, as well. Oladipo struggled to defend in the post, but Indiana appears willing to let him switch onto bigger guys:
But perhaps the second largest advantage the Cavs have is James’ passing against an Indiana defense that surrenders a ton of three-point attempts. James assisted on 344 three-point attempts with 128 of those leading to corner threes, both of which led the league by a wide margin.
Cleveland is not a pick and roll team as much as they like to feature pick and pop or simply set ball screens to force a switch before letting James operate. This mitigates some of the passing lane deterrence that feeds Indiana’s defense.
In addition, Myles Turner has really struggled to cover pick and pops throughout his career. The Cavs should be able to exploit him in the action with Kevin Love — shooting an insane 45.7 percent from three since returning from injury while simultaneously increasing his range and versatility:
Between Love and James, Cleveland should have exploitable matchups for its top-two offensive threats against the Pacers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly against this Indiana team, the Cavs have been excellent taking care of the basketball following the trades. By adding low turnover guys in George Hill and Rodney Hood and increasing Jose Calderon’s minutes, Cleveland is turning it over at a shockingly low rate.
Since the Trade Deadline, Cleveland has turned it over on just 12.6 percent of possessions — fourth fewest in the NBA. With Hill on the floor, that number drops to 12.1 percent. Add in Rodney Hood for what should be the Cavs’ starting backcourt and they turn it over on a minuscule 8.8 percent of possessions.
Continuing to take care of the basketball will allow Cleveland to eliminate one of Indiana’s largest drivers — turning steals into easy baskets.
After studying the film and digging into the numbers, it is hard to conclude that Cleveland is anything but thrilled with its first round matchup. While Indiana is a good team, they simply aren’t structured to beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With Kevin Love on the floor since returning from injury, Cleveland has a 123 oRTG. When Love-James-Hill share the floor, that oRTG jumps to 130.5. Say what you want about Cleveland’s defense, but unless you can stop the Cavs’ elite offense, it is going to be hard to keep up.
Without a “LeBron stopper” or even a good proxy for one and with a defense that surrenders a boatload of threes, Indiana looks to be in a precarious position. If Cleveland can continue to protect the basketball, the Pacers will lack advantages.
On the other end, Lue and the Cavs will make players other than Victor Oladipo beat them. In addition, Cleveland will live with a plethora of midrange attempts. It will be hard for a Pacers team who averaged three fewer makes from downtown than Cleveland on the season to deploy the firepower necessary to keep up.
Cleveland may have had a bit of a bumpy season and Indiana (and Oladipo) have been a nice breakout story. But this matchup breaks down in way too many areas for the Pacers, who will exit the playoffs in the first round at the hands of Cleveland for a second consecutive season.
Prediction: CAVS IN 4