If there was a game for the Indiana Pacers to come in and take the wind out of the sails in the defending champion’s house, it was the first one.
If a decently open C.J. Miles 14-foot jumper would’ve gone in at the final buzzer, it could’ve changed the complexion of the entire series immediately, but the Cleveland Cavaliers dodged a huge bullet and took a 1-0 lead with a 109-108 victory.
Saturday afternoon’s game was one of those where the underdog just kept hanging around. Cleveland came out blazing with a 61 percent shooting outburst in the first half, but Pacers were still having their way as well on offense.
“Good defense” was little represented on both sides, especially with Indiana having real issues defending LeBron James and the pick-and-roll, but the Cavs couldn’t capitalize as much as they should have.
Despite getting to the charity stripe seven more times than the Pacers, Cleveland made three fewer total free throws than them. It was an abysmal 51.9 percent clip that probably should have cost Tyronn Lue’s group an opening game loss.
Indiana’s fight to stay in the game was admirable. After going down 90-78 on a fast break hustle play that ended with a classic James one-hand dunk, the Cavs seemed to be pulling away. But, as highlighted in our Game 1 preview, they are prone to giving leads up late in games, and the Pacers took advantage of that in the fourth quarter.
Led by a gritty performance on both ends, Lance Stephenson was making plays left and right like he always has in a navy blue and gold uniform. He was attacking the basket relentlessly and Indiana picked up off that energy. Thaddeus Young took the challenge upon himself to match up with James and did an excellent job of limiting him to the best of his ability. Myles Turner took advantage on the glass with Tristan Thompson getting some rest.
Jeff Teague was knocking down key shots at key moments in the final period, the biggest coming with 3:32 left in the game to give the Pacers a 105-103 advantage for the first time since the opening quarter. Unfortunately for the underdogs, that would be the last lead they’d have over Cleveland.
The next possession, James drew a mismatch against Myles Turner on the elbow and raced past him to throw down a two-hand slam that re-ignited Quicken Loans Arena and quickly shifted the momentum back to the Cavs. Paul George got up a mid-range jumper quickly after, but it went in-and-out—something that seemed to happen often for him Saturday—which allowed Kyrie Irving to get the rebound and get a quick shot off to give Cleveland the lead back with 2:34 to go.
The All-Star point guard brought the fire to the other end of the floor right after that, defending Teague step-for-step on a drive to the rim resulting in a strip and free throws on the other end for J.R. Smith.
The Cavalier defense baited Stephenson into taking a wide-open three pointer and it worked, but another gaffe at the free throw line by James and a miscommunication between Irving and Smith gave Indiana a fighting chance down four. Sure enough, George fired off a 28-foot bomb from deep to cut it down to one with 40.6 seconds left in the game.
A poor possession from James and the Cavs handed the Pacers the final chance to win it with 20 seconds, but to their credit, they had a plan. After Richard Jefferson committed foul to give with 10 seconds, Cleveland was going to let anybody but George attempt that lost shot, so James and Smith doubled him up at half court and forced him to pass it off to Miles, who couldn’t come through.
It was a sigh of relief for the Cavaliers and an incredibly disappointing missed opportunity for Indiana.
Who Wins Game 2?
All in all, aside from the embarrassing numbers from the line and surrendering a 12-point lead, Cleveland played a solid game. The ball movement was crisp for the most part, and a lot of the open looks they had didn’t go down.
According to NBA.com, the Cavs attempted nine wide-open threes and only made three of them. Irving and Smith were 0-for-4 on such chances and Kevin Love made one of three. Don’t expect that trend to continue for them. If the Pacers continue to let them get those opportunities, they will get burned from deep.
For Indiana to have a shot on Monday, they need to continue to get Stephenson the ball. He drove the ball a team-high seven times and converted five of six shots at the rim. He also had the second-best net rating (13.9) on the team. This will all of course be secondary to George, whose usage should be even higher after his post-game comments.
Defensively, the Pacers need to keep Young on James. He did a solid job of locking him up in the fourth quarter and might be the only player on Indiana that somewhat matches his body frame.
With all this being said, though, the Cavaliers will be on high alert. They know this could’ve easily been a different situation heading into the second game of the series, and because of that, fully expect a focused team to come out of the gate once again. Thompson set the tone with five points and five rebounds early in a battle with Turner, which he won head-to-head in the first game.
Kevin Love started out the game with a quick 10 points, and then sort of fizzled out after that. What Lue gets out of James and Irving is a constant, but look out for a big performance from the third member of the big three.
Due to continuing free throw troubles, Cleveland will still struggle to put the Pacers away, but it won’t come down to the buzzer this time around. Cavs win Game 2 by a five-to-seven-point margin to take a 2-0 lead.
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