The Cleveland Cavaliers certainly cut a lot of corners during the NBA’s regular season. A long, dramatic battle with the Indiana Pacers allowed them to nix their bad habits and regain a long-lost identity.
On the surface, it can seem like there isn’t a lot to be excited about as a Cleveland Cavaliers fan right now. They didn’t win the series with the Indiana Pacers as much as they survived it.
But — and maybe I’m just looking at this through rose-colored glasses — I think this series is just what the doctor ordered.
Game 1 in Toronto will be tough, given the quick turnaround, but as the series progresses the Cavaliers will reap the rewards of this struggle.
The Cavaliers looked completely and utterly unprepared for the each of the last two NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors went 4-0 in the first two games of each series, outscoring the Cavaliers by 89 points in the process.
After each Cavaliers team gained a footing, they made the series far more competitive. After each Game 2 the Cavaliers went 5-3, outscoring the Warriors in each series and by 59 points combined.
I believe that the reason for this unpreparedness was the lackadaisical effort during the regular season combined with inferior competition in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Those Cleveland Cavaliers teams walked into the death trap that is the Golden State machine with bad habits and bad conditioning. As you can imagine, starting a series down 0-2 isn’t the best recipe for success. In 2017, the deficit proved to be too much to overcome.
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Playoff basketball is an intensity adjustment for every team. For this reason, many teams approach the NBA regular season with playoff intensity, (i.e. the Indiana Pacers). The Pacers pushed the Cavaliers to the brink.
A week ago, I wrote about how the Cavaliers’ poor conditioning — a byproduct of not caring for regular season basketball — directly impacted their ability to knock down open shots.
As Cavaliers fans, we all reached a point during the series with the Pacers — for me it was Game 2 when they impossibly survived Lebron’s shooting onslaught, (I thought Game 1 was an aberration. I was wrong.) — where we were in awe at their physicality and intensity.
That physicality and intensity forced Cleveland to make their adjustments early, rather than during the NBA Finals as in previous years.
Cleveland goes into round two exhausted but in a transformative way. The Cavaliers were forced to defend for the first time all year, and they did so remarkably well in six of the seven games.
Their legs will return to them as a result. I expect Cleveland — who shot just 32% from three against the Pacers — to shoot much better against Toronto.
As we saw in Game 7 on Sunday, the Cavaliers can be a formidable offense when George Hill and Kevin Love are clicking. Add in better shooting and the newly established defensive identity, and you have a recipe for a formidable basketball team.
We saw this back in 2015 with the injury-riddled Cavaliers. Injuries caused Cleveland to struggle with a physically imposing Chicago Bulls team. After finally overcoming them in six games — with the help of another Lebron James buzzer beater — the Cavaliers made quick work of the 60-win Atlanta Hawks.
It was easy to see how those battle-tested Cavaliers outplayed Golden State over the first three games of that series.
This Cavaliers team — despite having more talent (less the 2015 injuries), and a better iteration of Lebron James — has taken on the blue color identity of that 2015 team. We can thank the adversity provided by the Indiana Pacers for that transformation.
I believe the Pacers may have inadvertently woken up the beast.