When looking at the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers from a talent standpoint, this series should be completely unfair. The Cavs have 127.5 million dollars of well-rounded talent—creators, shooters, wing-defenders, rebounders, and superstars. The Pacers check far fewer boxes. While they do have a superstar in Paul George, the surrounding pieces are limited to a stringy-haired shot blocker in Myles Turner, a point guard who doesn’t use his size well in Jeff Teague, and a cult hero in Lance Stephenson. The talent gap is demonstrable, yet Game 1 was there for the taking in Cleveland.
Indiana had the ball on the final possession down by one point and was an 18-foot C.J. Miles jumper away from knocking off the Eastern Conference favorites at home to start the series with a bang.
For me, the question is: Why was this game so close? Sure, had this been played a month ago, it would be easier to move on by saying “well, they got the win.” But this is the playoffs. This is a time where full engagement is not only required but expected. If this is the fully engaged Cavs, there is a serious reason for concern even if they got the win.
As any smart team with a talent deficiency would do, the Pacers attacked the soft spots of their superior opponent. Indiana head coach Nate McMillan is by no means a rocket scientist, but knowing the Cavs weakness does not require elaborate research. The answer is clearly defense, specifically defending ball screen action.
In re-watching the Cavs’ possessions against ball screens, it is clear that there just really isn’t a plan. It is hard to be rigid as a defender, but too much fluidity leads to holes and the Pacers sought out those gaps. Specifically, it was George who feasted on the prevalent issues in the Cavs’ perimeter defense.
Here, it’s unclear what J.R. Smith’s plan is on the George ball screen. If Smith is going to extend himself this high on the “hedge,” then it is Irving’s responsibility to switch to George when he flares to the corner. This doesn’t happen, in part because the hedge itself is loopy in nature. Hedging isn’t a bad way to defend the pick and roll, but it does require rigidity and most importantly communication. This nature of the Cavs defense was persistent all game, and it was not limited to Smith or Irving.
Two of Cleveland’s best wing defenders (LeBron James and Richard Jefferson) get lost here.
James and Jefferson, through a lack of communication, all but disregard C.J. Miles on the slide through the pick. Leaving a 41.3 percent three-point shooter on what is an obvious switch is a mistake that will catch up with the Cavs at some point of the playoffs.
There are many “flip the switch” truthers out there, but my question is: How long can the Cavs survive without electricity? Maybe they can coast to the NBA Finals, but if the Pacers are finding these holes you can bet those holes become canyons against the Golden State Warriors.
As Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer detailed before the playoffs, that same “slide” action Miles used has become a bread and butter set for the Warriors. Here, in last season’s NBA Finals you can see Klay Thompson raise his fist signaling a screen that proves to be faux. Before the fact, Thompson knows he will pivot through the screen and pop into an open three-point look.
This sliding action attacks teams that struggle to effectively communicate. For the Cavs, this may not kill them against the Pacers, Wizards or Celtics. But against the Warriors, the threat of Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry will surely be too much.
A key for the Cavs in addition to communication is a commitment to running the opponent off the three-point line. By forcing the action of the opposing pick and roll into the lane the Cavs have a third defender to help. Once the ball handler is within the arch, the Cavs bigs can cut off penetration.
Welcoming opposing pick and rolls into the lane is one counter the Cavs can offer, but better perimeter defense in and out of ball screen action will be requisite in a run back to the Finals. The switch will not be flipped until this comes to fruition, regardless of the opponent.