CLEVELAND — So LeBron James goes medieval on the Indiana Pacers to start Game 2 of their Eastern Conference series Wednesday, and the snarky reaction was to praise Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue as a wizard of game-to-game postseason adjustments.
Having the NBA’s best player explode for his team’s first 16 points, 29 in the first half and 46 by night’s end would make the Gatorade cooler over on the Cleveland sideline look like a coaching genius.
That is Lue’s luxury, that is Lue’s curse. And like the other 29 guys who hold the same job around the league would be, he’s fine with whatever dent that puts in his reputation as an ” X&O” strategist or a leader of men.
But there were other things going on for the Cavaliers as they beat the Pacers to even the best-of-seven series at 1-1, and Lue did have a hand in them.
Specifically, Lue reconfigured his starting lineup, swapping in J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver for Jeff Green and Rodney Hood. And the moves panned out, with both veteran shooting guards contributing at Quicken Loans Arena.
Korver scored 12 points and played his underrated team-defense role, taking a pair of charges and diving to the floor in ways that might break most 37-year-olds. Smith, for so long in his career an unrepentant chucker, got by with only five shots but accepted the defensive challenge of guarding Indiana’s primary scorer, Victor Oladipo.
Smith got a pair of steals, including a pivotal one with three minutes left when he tied up Oladipo in the backcourt and turned it into a layup for a 93-86 lead. It was the 16th of the Pacers’ 17 turnovers, a lethal number on a night that began so brutally.
Let’s put it this way: James, for all the havoc he wreaked early, finished a plus-7 in plus/minus. Smith was a plus-8. And Korver was a plus-15.
“Every moment is big in the playoffs,” Korver said afterward. “Moments can change games, moments can create a run. So I think that’s on all our minds. If there’s a loose ball, dive on the floor. If you can take a charge, do that. The playoffs are all about scratching. Whatever it takes.”
Korver was proud of that last comment, working so smoothly into his analysis the Cavs’ marketing department’s slogan for the 2018 playoffs. “Whatever It Takes.” It seems a little plucky and feisty for a team whose core has gone to three consecutive Finals. But after a long, tumultuous regular season and a rigorous 96 minutes so far in the postseason, it might just apply.
In moving Green (scoreless in Game 1) and Hood (a placeholder for a sick Korver) to the bench, Lue’s first impulse was to surround James from tipoff with potent shooters. That worked beyond all expectations as the four-time MVP and strong candidate for a fifth shredded the Pacers’ early defense at will.
Lue had implored James, publicly and privately, to come out more aggressively this time, rather than facilitating teammates and taking the game’s temperature the way he had on Sunday. It’s a little harder to give the Cavs coach the credit for his star’s more snarly demeanor — LeBron is who he is, answerable mostly to himself — but clearly, he was right in what Cleveland needed.
“This was the most aggressive I’ve seen [James] at the start of a game, as far as trying to make a conscious effort attacking,” Smith said. “ ’Bron is at best when he’s just comfortable being him. Not when he’s trying to be too locked in or trying to be, just being quiet. That’s not who he is. He’s best when he’s laughing, joking, having a good time. It just seems like he plays better, in my opinion.”
Smith gave credit to Korver for keep defenders spaced out and away from James, although Kevin Love and Smith had the same effect, with guard George Hill a little less feared from range.
Korver, meanwhile, didn’t overthink the Cavs’ vastly improved start. Last time they trailed 33-14 after 12 minutes; this time, they were up 33-18.
“We roll how he rolls,” Korver said of James. “There are moments when he has to get us all going and get us shots, but a lot of our shots are predicated off him putting his head down and driving to the basket. Kind of creating things for us. That’s how we play.
“We don’t run a motion offense or anything. We give LeBron the ball and say, ‘Go to work.’”
Actually, the Pacers were the ones who got busy after their initial stagger. They outscored Cleveland 79-67 over the final three quarters and got within four points numerous times. With barely a half minute left, Indiana had turned the Cavs’ big bounce-back performance into a one-possession game, trailing just 95-92.
Out of a timeout, the two most helpful Cavs sidekicks Wednesday, Korver and Smith, got crossed up on a switch and left Oladipo open on the right wing. He launched an uncontested 27-footer that would have tied it, but it bounced off.
Oladipo has been outstanding through two games, but his opportunities got restricted by early foul trouble, limiting him to less than nine minutes in the first half. With Smith as a deterrent notwithstanding, Oladipo scored 15 in the second half anyway to boost the Pacers’ hopes as the series shifts to Indianapolis for Games 3 and 4, starting Friday.
That Cleveland’s Kevin Love suffered a partially torn left thumb late in the game and might be bothered by it in Game 3 was a little added incentive for Indiana. So was the way they absorbed James’ immediate haymaker without their knees buckling.
”Take nothing away from what he’s done,” Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said, “but he had 46 points and we lost by three. We punched them, they punched us. We’re very, very confident.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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