On Sunday, when the Cavs walked onto the floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse down 2-1, their starting lineup was José Calderón, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, LeBron James and Kevin Love, and if you subtract Calderón and add Jeff Green those are essentially the same players that dominated the crunch-time closing minutes. They squeaked out the win, but the critical lineups epitomized something that’s been concerning in this series — the players that the Cavs acquired at deadline have failed to make an impact. All of the players mentioned above have been with the Cavs since the beginning of the season, and none of them are under the age of 29. George Hill, a veteran with more playoff experience than all of the other deadline acquisitions combined, was hurt, but he’s only averaging 8.7 points per game, and has taken just six combined shots from behind the arc in his three games this series.
All of the other deadline deal players seemed to be given a limited amount of trust on Sunday, and for an understandable reason — in a close, must-win game they couldn’t be completely relied on, especially in a series where their weaknesses have become magnified.
Some of it’s probably chemistry issues, considering injuries and fluctuating lineups have made it difficult to fully integrate everyone. Some of it’s probably just young players who haven’t seen any — or much — time in the playoffs having a deer-in-the-headlights moment. And some of it’s been the stifling defense from the Pacers, who have the highest defensive rating of any team in the playoffs right now at 101.1. They switch well, they help well and they put pressure on the ball. Their bigs can move. Bojan Bogdanović has proven he’s underrated on that end of the floor. And Lance Stephenson, the closest person the 2018 NBA playoffs has to a Batman villain, has frustrated the Cavs, sometimes by making good basketball plays, and sometimes by being back to his cartoon antics — head-butting backstops, prioritizing pushing LeBron’s limits and throwing head-and-arm tosses like he’s in a high-school wrestling match. As a team, the Pacers have weathered early storms, and been able to regain momentum. And, unlike the Cavs, they’ve had role players step up. It doesn’t spell doom yet, though. It’s only been four games. There’s obviously room to believe that the players the Cavs acquired at deadline can still make an impact on this series, and the rest of the playoffs. But something has to eventually flip, because if not, the team might not see its fourth straight finals.
Of the four players the Cavs acquired at the deadline — Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., George Hill and Rodney Hood — only Hill is averaging more than seven points per game in this series, at the aforementioned 8.7. Clarkson scored 12 points in Sunday’s game, although a red hot start from the field devolved into some sloppy drives in a close fourth quarter during important possessions. He’s also had two games with two points, while averaging 19 minutes a game, and has a net rating of -4.4. Larry Nance Jr. also found a bit of a groove last game, going 5-7 from the field, and scoring ten points, getting easy buckets by running in transition and finding space down low, but he’s been largely absent as a spark plug player who, at his best, plays like the greatest hits of Anderson Varejão set to fast forward. Rodney Hood is shooting 22.2 percent from three through the first four games, which is disappointing since he has the potential to be a high-volume, high-efficiency long-range scorer. Hill, a high-IQ two-way guard, probably just needs to get fully healthy, more than anything else.
To be fair, the new players have only been a portion of what’s wrong. Kevin Love has been sporadic, and Jeff Green’s 35.1 percent true shooting percentage ranks last in the 2018 playoffs for players with more than 15 minutes. Problems existed well before the deadline, and they’ll continue to after the season. Whether having the best basketball player on earth can float the Cavs through the Eastern conference remains to be seen, but they more than likely need other players to step out of the shadows. And it would be helpful if Clarkson, Nance, Hill and Hood can carve out bigger roles for themselves.