The Cavaliers need to keep an eye on the Indiana Pacers this season

Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers and Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers and Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Until proven otherwise, the Eastern Conference goes through the Boston Celtics and the re-shaped Milwaukee Bucks. The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to climb the ladder and prove that they’re a legitimate challenger, but they’re not the only team looking to rise as they’ll have to deal with the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia 76ers (although they’re on shaky ground).

When you look a little further down last year’s standings, you’ll find the Indiana Pacers lurking in the background. The Pacers may not directly challenge the Cavaliers for a playoff spot, but Indiana could play the role of spoiler in the Eastern Conference. As such, the Cavaliers need to keep an eye on the Pacers this season.

The Pacers could be a threat to move up this season

Since the Pacers and Cavaliers are Central Division rivals, they play each other four times a season. Last season, Cleveland went 3-1 against Indiana with the Cavs’ lone loss coming on Dec. 29 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, 135-126. Three guys in the Pacers’ starting lineup scored at least 20 points, as Tyrese Haliburton led the way with 29 points, Aaron Nesmith added 22 and Buddy Hield contributed 25. Bennedict Mathurin came off Indy’s bench and added 23 points.

The Pacers have a similar makeup to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers have a young core of players led by Haliburton and Hield alongside Andrew Nembhard, Nesmith, and a veteran big man in Myles Turner. The Cavaliers have a young core of their own in Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley, Max Strus, Ty Jerome, and Tristan Thompson, who was on the 2016 championship team, to serve as the veteran big man. The difference between Thompson and Turner, in this case, is that Turner is going to be in the starting lineup for the Pacers while Thompson will come off the bench for the Cavaliers.

What really hurt the Pacers last season was playing on the road, as they were a dismal 15-26 away from Indianapolis. At home, they were a game below .500, at 20-21. To get into the play-in, the Pacers just need to finish .500 or so overall. If Indy can improve their record on the road, then they’ll become a legitimate playoff contender that the Cavaliers need to watch out for.

The Cavaliers went 2-0 against the Pacers in downtown Cleveland last season, but the combined margin of victory in the two games was a mere 16 points. In the first meeting on December 16, the Cavaliers narrowly defeated the Pacers 118-112 thanks to 41 points from Mitchell. Then on April 2, Cleveland defeated Indiana 115-105 with Mitchell scoring 40 more. If it weren’t for Mitchell’s heroic efforts, the Pacers might’ve been able to steal both of those games which would’ve given them the regular season series 3-1.

Last season, the Denver Nuggets won the championship for the first time in franchise history. One of the key reasons they were the last team standing was because of the play of Bruce Brown. He scored at least 10 points in four of the five games against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and made other key plays that helped the Nuggets capture the title. But when you win the championship, other teams are going to come calling and want to sign some of your key pieces. That’s exactly what happened as Brown signed a two-year, $45 million deal with the Pacers. The Cavaliers are hoping Okoro finds a role to fit his skillset much like Brown did with the Nets and Nuggets.

Brown has championship experience that he can pass on to guys like Haliburton, Hield, Nembhard, and Nesmith. Brown can take on a lot of roles with the Pacers: he’ll defend the opposing team’s best perimeter player (like Klay Thompson did before his major injuries), he can stand in the corner to shoot the three-pointer, or he can roll to the basket. That could make the Pacers an even more dangerous team this season. In fact, Brown is exactly the type of player the Cavs wished they could have added, but instead settled for picking up Max Strus this past offseason.

While Brown was the biggest offseason addition for the Pacers, they also brought in Obi Toppin via a trade with the New York Knicks. Toppin could easily slide into the starting lineup to pair with Haliburton, Hield, Turner, and maybe Nesmith to give the Pacers a formidable group. The Cavaliers will counter with Garland, Mitchell, LeVert, Mobley, and Allen. With that group, Indy will want to play a more up-tempo full-court style of game while Cleveland wants to slow the game down and play in the half-court. It will be interesting to see whose style wins out this season.

Two seasons ago, the Cavaliers were the team that rose up and made a statement. This season, the Pacers are looking to do the same thing. Indiana has the young talent that could allow them to make that jump. Should that be the case, the Central Division will send three teams to the playoffs.

Next. Starting tonight: An All-Time Cleveland Cavaliers Dream Team. dark

If the Pacers do make noise in the playoffs and match up with the Cavs, we could be in for another classic series that goes the distance like in 2018.