CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers thought they were going to play on Sunday. As one of the league’s marquee teams that’s when their playoff journey started the previous two years. Not this time.
The Cavs got a Saturday game, the opener to this year’s playoffs, which deprived them of an extra preparation day.
The good news? The Cavs had seen Indiana almost two weeks earlier, dueling with the Pacers in a memorable double overtime win to kick off the April portion of the schedule. That made it easier to put together a plan.
“Just tendencies,” Kyrie Irving said when asked what he learned from the recent matchup. “I’m pretty sure we saw some of it, a little bit of their tendencies that last game because they were kind of in desperation mode trying to get into the playoffs and they started showing their hand a little bit. So that’s a positive on our end.”
The Cavs implemented some of those lessons Saturday afternoon, starting with a new defender against Indiana All-Star Paul George.
In early April, LeBron James wanted the matchup. He was hoping to set the tone. The result: George scored 43 points on 16-of-33 from the field to go with nine assists and nine rebounds. As good as James can be as a defender, George might be even better as an all-around offensive threat. That game, George played off the ball, running around a plethora of screens, limiting James’ on-ball effectiveness, causing an abundance of confusion and exhausting Cleveland’s star, as James faded late.
For Game 1, instead of using James against George, Lue opted for J.R. Smith, the player responsible for guarding DeMar DeRozan during last year’s conference finals, one round after hounding Kyle Korver when the sharpshooter was still with the Atlanta Hawks.
“They tried to run LeBron around a lot our last game here,” Lue said. “To save his legs and save his energy to be able to play offensively and do the things he can do, J.R. took the challenge and did a great job. I thought defensively we were pretty good outside the loose balls they got, the offensive rebounds and putbacks, the 50/50 balls we didn’t get to they scored on. Just clean those things up and it’d have been a different game.”
That’s certainly debatable. The Cavs’ goal is to keep teams below 24 points in a quarter. They didn’t accomplish that. Theoretically, the Cavs want the opponent to hover around 44 percent from the field. That’s a good mark in today’s faster, wide-open game. The Pacers, ranked 15th on offense during the regular season, shot 49 percent. That’s not the stingy defense Cleveland wanted.
But with Smith defending George, James was able to roam, using his size, speed and instincts to blow-up possessions in other ways, just as he did in the closing seconds. James left his man, forced George to give the ball up in the face of a double-team and made C.J. Miles take the last shot, which came up short.
“We knew the clock was going down and C.J. pretty much had to go iso or try to put up a shot against R.J. (Richard Jefferson) and R.J. did a great job of cutting him off and make him reload his shot and still get a contest,” James said. “In our league, the guy that gives up the ball is sometimes the most dangerous because you tend to relax and he can come back and get it. So we just have to have our antennas up.”
And remember those pin-downs from the previous meeting, the plays so effective getting George open looks from beyond the arc that they led to James and Tristan Thompson shouting at each other? The Cavs scouted them well. They were ready.
Instead of Thompson dropping down to take away the roller, he jumped in front of George, often taking the passing lane away.
“That was great for us,” Thompson said of the April meeting. “Coach gave us our coverages for those pin-downs, we watched a lot of film, guys individually watched a lot of film. Definitely Paul George’s and C.J.’s pin-downs are a big part of their offense. That’s how they get 3’s. We’ve got to be able to lock in and get stops and stick to our defensive principles.”
Miles, a noted “Cavs killer,” was never able to get in rhythm. He finished with five points in 16 minutes. He tallied 27 points in the previous meeting.
“I think we gave him some different looks,” Lue said. “At times we switched out to take away his 3-point shot, we blitzed him on the catch on some of his 3-point shots. The 3 that he did get that he did make, we was supposed to switch and he got it off from 3. Take that away, we probably did a pretty decent job.”
Despite the changes, the Pacers still had chances late. Down by four with 1:17 to go, Indiana called timeout to set up an inbounds play. The pass was supposed to go to George, of course. But the Cavs played it well. They had seen it in a previous meeting and made an adjustment. With Thompson’s feisty defense, George never touched the ball and the pivotal possession ended with a panicked Myles Turner getting stripped by Irving.
“We knew what they was going to run at end of game and we wanted Tristan to switch out and deny,” Lue said. “Tristan did a good job of doing that. We went over those plays what we want to do at the end of games.”
It certainly wasn’t a perfect defensive showing by the Cavs. But at least this ending didn’t call for a locker room apology.
“Coach Lue and our coaching staff are going to give us a great game plan,” James said. “It’s up to us to go out and execute it.”
The foundation for that plan was laid on April 2.
Cavaliers use lessons from early April meeting against Pacers to get Game 1 win – cleveland.com