CLEVELAND – Let’s make a deal right now, after three days and two games of what possibly will be two months of playoff basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers: As long as LeBron James and the rest of them keeping winning games, we will stop nitpicking them for the myriad things they don’t do well on any given night.
Or to frame this bargain more as it’s intended, we will stop citing the flaws and lulls that could thwart them in their quest to repeat as NBA champions. And James will continue to treat first-round opponents the way Muhammad Ali treated the shadows he boxed, the way Tiger Woods used to treat the field.
It became quite clear Monday night, as Cleveland seized a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven series against the Indiana Pacers, that the defending champions are going to clean up their performances a quarter or a category at a time, as they see fit. So what if they missed 13 free throws in Game 1 or turned over the ball 19 times in Game 2 or allowed the Pacers to make more than half their shots in the series so far? They won both nights.
If the Cavaliers didn’t heed all the teachable moments splayed out in front of them in their 11-15 finish from late February and cure what was ailing them, pressing a cool washcloth against their heads on their trek toward 16 victories isn’t likely to fix things now.
They don’t want it, they don’t think they need it.
What we see from the outside – leads of 12 and 19 points whittled down to one and six points respectively, life left late twice in a Pacers team that, on Monday certainly, tried to do everything it could to spin out of control – isn’t how Cleveland sees it from the inside.
Fully cognizant of their vast array of skills and weapons, supremely confident in their postseason knocks and lessons – and keenly aware that James hasn’t lost a first-round game since 2012 (19 in a row) or a first-round series ever – the Cavaliers don’t sound anywhere near as worried as others are for them.
“We’re right there. We’re right there [near] what we can become and we’ll figure it out,” James said after scoring 25 points with 10 rebounds in the 117-111 victory at Quicken Loans Arena. He brought up the rear in the first playoff game in which he, Kevin Love (27) and Kyrie Irving (37) all scored at least 25 points.
"We have a chance to do something we’ve all wanted to do all season and that’s put together a four-quarter game. I think we’re right there on the cusp of doing that."
“I’d rather have an 18-point lead than not have a lead at all,” James said. “We make plays down the stretch to win a ball game in the postseason, that’s all you can ask for. But we’re right there on turning the switch on what we really can become.
“We have a chance to do something we’ve all wanted to do all season and that’s put together a four-quarter game. I think we’re right there on the cusp of doing that.”
The rest of us can slice and dice, grouse about style points and presumptuously try to project how far short this level of play would fall against Golden State or maybe San Antonio out West. But when the Cavaliers can eviscerate another team the way they did in a single quarter Monday, with Indiana hitched up as a co-conspirator, it’s possible to understand why they might not feel the urgency.
This could go on all postseason, or until the East boards up for the summer anyway.
Cleveland had done well enough to that point, starting the second quarter with an 8-0 spurt, playing 3 vs. 2 back and forth for a stretch, then sending Irving at Pacers point guard Jeff Teague later. But it didn’t hold and in a flurry of missed shots and basic ball by Indiana, the Cavs’ lead was down to five at the half.
That’s when several things happened in pretty rapid succession, none of them good for the visitors. Iman Shumpert replaced J.R. Smith, who injured his left hamstring, to dial up the defensive pressure through traps and doubling on Indiana All-Star Paul George. Pacers coach Nate McMillan tried to slow down Irving by sticking George over there, shifting Lance Stephenson into duty against Love. And the Cavs directed Love, in that mismatch, to “do your job.”
Doing his job resulted in 10 consecutive points from Love, who had scored a mere two in the second half of Game 1. And it drove the tightly wound Stephenson to distraction. He got flustered, then downright ticked. The emotions that can provide such a boost when Stephenson is hot offensively worked in reverse as he got burned defensively by Love’s post-ups.
Indiana got outscored 33-20 in the period.
“We lost our composure out there,” McMillan said. “I thought we started to get frantic out there.
“We started to kind of separate there and started to play more 1-on-1 basketball. As opposed to just staying together, knowing they’re going to make a run. You need to get a couple stops and you’ll find yourself right back in the game, as we did in the fourth quarter.”
A 12-2 run from the quarter’s midpoint to George’s free throws at 1:47 cut Cleveland’s 109-94 lead to 111-106. But the mood at The Q in Game 1 grew tense as the Pacers got close and briefly grabbed the lead; this time, it seemed more like a puzzle for the Cavaliers to figure out, no real sense of dread descending.
A savvy inbounds play of all things – James setting a screen that crushed Teague and enabled Irving to flash open for a layup on Shumpert’s inbounds pass, proved to be the winner with 29.6 seconds left. When James blocked Myles Turner, the Pacers’ promising but currently lost young center, the next trip down, the Cavs star shook his head theatrically “No, no, no.”
And that about cinched it. George hit a 3-pointer, but his team never did turn it into a one-possession game. And Indiana’s defense was feeble, with Cleveland still shooting above 60 percent in the game’s 43rd minute.
Cleveland is on its way to that place so many have predicted and there’s no need for media or fans or anyone else to dutifully tag along rolling the IV pole. The patient is up and ornery. Until someone finds blood where it shouldn’t be, the vigil is over.
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