If you caught LeBron James in just the right light during that first quarter, you could have seen the steam wisping off his damn bald spot. Playoff LeBron is here but probably much, much earlier than he’d intended on arriving, and as cranky as those circumstances would suggest.
Fresh off his first round-one loss in six years, James spent the first frame fuming, outscoring the Pacers 20-18 on 9-of-12 shooting, reminding everyone on the floor for a short span that there’s really nothing to be done if he wants to deposit the ball in the hoop. What might have been a comforting reminder to his teammates read more as a distressing evidence of the urgency: There was really no other choice available to James. “Get the teammates involved” is a less appealing credo when non-LeBron Cavs are shooting 39 percent from the floor through two games, a full 10 percent down from what the non-LeBron Cavs maintained in regular-season. James doesn’t have the luxury of grooming his squad for the later rounds when the current round is demanding his full exertion. The thinness of the Cavaliers roster called for James to do what he did—score now, facilitate later—and even then, the cushion he gave them was barely enough.
Victor Oladipo had overtime right in his crosshairs. Kyle Korver careened into this hedge, hardly impeding his movement, and J.R. Smith didn’t look all that, uh, emotionally invested in recovering. The Pacers stud just so happened to miss a clean look and so the Cavaliers survived.
Even granted the most heartwarming story of gelling and meshing and team-building—none of which Choo-Choo-Smoke-Coming-Out-My-Ears LeBron would facilitate eagerly—the Cavaliers are bound to give up so much on the other end of the floor, because they’re dragging the second-worst regular season defense into the postseason. It’s something of a miracle that Indiana hasn’t cracked 100 points yet, because the threats are many. Oladipo can cook Cleveland’s entire roster off the dribble—including, as he emphatically demonstrated in the clutch last night, James himself:
Darren Collison’s always going to get his buckets on the perimeter. The Cavs bigs haven’t had any luck slowing down Myles Turner or Thaddeus Young, who have shot a combined 20-of-31 in the series. The Pacers are also guaranteed some combustible clown-show Lance Stephenson bursts and widespread production from the bench. All this is pitted against a roster where Jose Calderon has been forced into serious minutes and reacting to screens like highway traffic, Jeff Green does not move around the court so much as he oozes, and Kevin Love clatters around arthritically, breaking down further with each passing second (he twisted his right ankle coming down from a jumper, and exited the game late in the fourth quarter after he jammed the thumb on the left hand he broke earlier this season). This team cannot reliably stop anyone from getting points, so it’ll need to throw up lots of its own.
How will these points magically materialize? A Kyrie-less roster leaves LeBron no time to catch his breath. Love is shooting volume and not connecting on much, making a bleak 33 percent. Kyle Korver has hit 44 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, which is just a blip below his regular-season conversion, and that’s about all you can ask from the 36-year-old man who is doing his job admirably. Similarly, Smith has stayed level-headed and drained his threes at a 37-percent clip. These dudes are meeting expectations and at this point in their careers don’t appear to have all that much more to offer.
The Cavaliers’ trade-deadline pickups haven’t had as much juice as hoped. Larry Nance Jr. was one of the most effective roll men in the NBA in the regular season, averaging 1.38 points per pick and roll possession, good for the 93rd percentile, according to Synergy Sports. But Nance has taken only eight shots this series, and only one last night. Maybe his ludicrous above-the-rim athleticism gets stifled by Myles Turner, a solid rim protector, or maybe the Cavaliers haven’t been insistent on creating good matchups for him to exploit. George Hill must stay out of foul trouble because his wing defense and supplementary ball-handling are the only things allowing James a moment to collect himself. Neither a very reluctant Rodney Hood nor Jordan Clarkson look poised to become the kind of secondary shot-creator that James might have been praying for in the midseason shuffle; the King has ramped up his regular-season usage rate a few ticks to a colossal 34 percent. Even for your usual LeBron-and-his-band-of-mercenaries squad, the offense has had its hitches, and as such they’ve been turning the ball over at a higher rate than any playoff team besides the doomed Bucks.
If there is a future for these Cavaliers—or even a second round for them—it relies on at least one of the above men waking up, or something above and beyond from the everyday superhuman who dropped 46-12-5 in a single-digit win and still needs three more victories.