Apart from a furious run spanning the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, the Cavs were soundly whupped on their home floor by the Pacers Sunday afternoon, and lost 98-80. Possibly these are the end times. Up...is it down?
This was the first first-round loss in the playoffs for the Cavs since LeBron’s return, and the first first-round loss for LeBron since the 2012 playoffs, when he was a member of the Miami Heat. Listen to me: The Indiana Pacers just crushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of a playoff series, in Cleveland.
The Cavs looked awful! You’d expect this year’s Cavs team to struggle defensively—they finished the regular season ranked 29th in defensive efficiency, and their rotation includes a handful of big-minutes guys who’ve played fewer than 30 games with the Cavs—but defense was only part of the trouble in Game 1. The Cavs scored just 38 points in the first half against the Pacers; LeBron had a bit of an off night, scoring-wise (7-of-17 from the floor, 0-of-4 from deep); Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson, Kyle Korver, and George Hill combined to attempt 23 shots—probably that is a problem all on its own, but they combined to hit only five of those shots. The Cavs made only 60 percent of their free throws, for crying out loud.
Victor Oladipo, on the other hand, got loose for 32 points on 19 shots, and for large chunks of the game looked like the best player on the floor. That’s a dizzying, frightening thing to say about a playoff game featuring LeBron James, but it’s the truth:
Oladipo ate up Cleveland’s defense. He knocked down four three-pointers in the first half, on five attempts; he picked up right where he left off in the second half, pouring in 16 points on nine shots and just generally looking far too energetic and athletic for any one of Cleveland’s guards to handle. Cleveland’s bigs were sagging off Oladipo on switches; he punished them by pushing the ball straight at them and then pulling up for off-the-bounce threes that only the most agile big men in the world could possibly hope to contest. And, and, he was the best defensive player in the game, ripping off a game-high four steals, and blocking a LeBron layup for good measure.
This was a surreal viewing experience. As the Pacers raced out to a huge 23-point first half lead, suddenly the fact that LeBron James was playing playoff minutes alongside guys like Jeff Green and Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood came zooming into sharp focus, and seemed very much like some sort of error. Just wait until Lue puts LeBron’s good teammates back into the game! When the Cavs wrestled the game back to within a couple possessions in the second half, it seemed like a gigantic, herculean feat, every bit as unlikely as the hole they’d found their way into in the first half. I’m going to need the Cavs to beat the Pacers by 30 in Game 2 in order to wipe this uncomfortable disorientation out of my brain.
The 80 points Cleveland scored were the fewest they’ve scored in a playoff game during LeBron’s second stint in town, excepting that brutal 33-point blowout loss at Golden State in Game 2 of the 2016 Finals. The Pacers finished just 14th in defensive efficiency in the regular season. If the Cavs and Playoff LeBron can’t do a whole lot more than they did Sunday afternoon, my friends, they will surely be in the deepest of shit. I will not be ready to write LeBron off until I actually see him eliminated, but this was a wholly unexpected way for this series to start.