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Can Cleveland Defend Its Throne in the East, Again?

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Wednesday night’s Game 2 between the Cavs and Pacers was one of the most predictable results in sports.  His team was down 0-1 in a playoff series, so LeBron James did what only LeBron James can.

We all knew it was coming.  Cleveland’s first possession they ran a clear out set for LeBron off of a dribble handoff from Kevin Love. LeBron drove Thad Young into the paint, pulled back for a mid-range fade, and drained it. Everyone watching could feel what was about to happen.  The next possession, same play, LeBron drives to the rack and finishes.

Rinse & Repeat.

The King poured in 13 points before anyone else in the game would score, for either team. MVP chants echoed throughout the Q. In all, he scored the first 16 for the Cavs before assisting Kevin Love on a wide open three to push the lead to 19-3, midway through the 1st quarter. James finished the quarter with 20 points, 6 rebound, and 3 assists.

LeBron’s performance harkened back to his legendary Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in 2012.

As unbelievable as he was, his team almost lost.

LeBron is still the best player on the planet; and still, somehow, in year 15, he’s able to take over a game and will his team to win in the playoffs.  Can he do that 3 more times this series? And 4 times next round against Toronto? Because he’ll probably need to, if his reign over the Eastern Conference is to continue.

Defensive Questions Persist 

Through two games this series, Cleveland’s offensive rating is 96.5 and their defensive rating is 103.6. Indiana’s is just the inverse of that.  The Cavs -7.1 net rating ranks 11th among this year’s playoff teams.  In two games, at home for Cleveland, the Cavs have been thoroughly outplayed by the Pacers.  Fortunately, they have LeBron James on their side, so they were able to win one of those games.

Now they have to travel to Indiana where they’ll face a frenzied crowd and a relentless team.  Realistically, Cleveland needs to win one of the next two to remain alive in the series. Even though LeBron was quick to point out after the Game 1 loss, he’s been down 3-1 in the Finals before so 0-1 is no big deal. It is my opinion, that going down 3-1 to this Indiana team, with this supporting cast around him, will bring the end of Cleveland’s streak in the East.

Even if they get past Indiana, which they are still favored to do, will they be able to defend well enough to beat the Raptors? During the regular season, Toronto had the third highest offensive rating in the league, behind the two scoring juggernauts out West. To be fair, Cleveland was fifth offensively, just barely behind Toronto. But the real difference between the two teams is their defense.  The Raptors finished fifth in the league in defensive rating, compared to the Cavs’ 29th ranked defense.

Make More Shots Than The Other Guys

Cleveland has succeeded in slowing down the Pacers, and have held them under 100 points in both games. I credit this more to Indiana’s poor shooting, than Cleveland finally flipping some switch defensively.  Last night, the Pacers shot 6-22 from 3pt range. Despite scoring over 50 points in the paint, they shot only 12 free throws, making 9 of them. Expect both of those narratives to change when the series shifts to Indiana.

Cleveland got blown out Game 1, when they shot 8-34 from 3pt. Coach Lue altered the starting lineup Game 2, and between the starters and the lineup that closed the game, it’s quite clear what Cleveland’s strategy is. Kyle Korver and JR Smith both saw an increase in minutes. JR didn’t score as he typically does, but his defensive effort was crucial to Cleveland’s win. Korver hit 4 three’s and had an uncharacteristic defensive stop against Myles Turner with the game on the line late in the 4th quarter. I’d expect to see Coach Lue continue to roll with offense-heavy lineups throughout the series.

LeBron Needs Love, no pun intended.

Much of Cleveland’s playoff hopes rely on the health of Kevin Love.  After missing extended time this season for a broken left hand, Love suffered a partially torn ligament in his left hand last night.  Early reports are that he will play in Game 3, and beyond.  He’ll likely have a brace or tape on his left hand. With the mystifying demise of Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. is already shouldering a larger load in his first playoff appearance. The Cavs need Love at full strength to have a chance at returning to the Finals for a fourth straight season.

There is plenty to be skeptical about with this supporting cast, but its unwise to doubt LeBron. I picked this Cavs team, even as a 4 seed, to find a way to come out of the East once again. But my confidence in that prediction has understandably wavered seeing how vulnerable their defense has looked in these first two games.

It feels weird that a LeBron James led team isn’t a lock to come out of the first round, but this team is flawed in ways past Cleveland teams weren’t. No Kyrie hurts. If their role players continue to struggle shooting from deep, LeBron will need to replicate last night’s performance every game.  Win or lose, I can’t wait to watch him try.

About Preston Dubey

Lifelong basketball fanatic and Bucks' supporter I coach basketball; but I eat, sleep, and breathe the game.

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