The Cleveland Cavaliers completed their frustrating sweep of the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, winning 106–102 in a game that had the intensity of a Tuesday tilt in February. On one hand, the Cavs will be the only team in the East to exit the first round unscathed, LeBron James is playing spectacularly, and the rest of the conference is fumbling around in the childish manner we’ve come to expect from the East. On the other hand, the Cavs’ margin of victory in the sweep—plus-16—doesn’t scream dominance, and Cleveland’s defense remains a significant issue moving forward.
This isn’t about concern-trolling the Cavs. Let’s be clear: Cleveland will make the Finals. I have no faith in the other teams in the field to actually pull off an upset. Having said that, the Cavs’ issues at stopping the ball will make every series, at the very least, interesting. And in a potential championship matchup with the Warriors? Cleveland’s current defense has no shot.
First, the numbers. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Cleveland’s 16-point margin of victory in a four-game sweep is the smallest margin of victory in a sweep of all-time. The Cavaliers’ defensive rating against the Pacers—who were a middling offensive team during the regular season—was 111.0. That number is virtually unchanged from Cleveland’s 111.1 defensive rating after the All-Star break, when the Cavaliers were the second-worst defensive team in the league.
Cleveland will probably ratchet up the focus even more in successive rounds, but attention to detail won’t be enough. The Cavaliers communication leaves a lot to be desired. So many of their defensive possessions end with LeBron shouting at the bench or LeBron frantically pointing at his teammates because of breakdowns in coverage. And communication can only go so far. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love still struggle on defense, with Irving often struggling to fight through picks while Love can often be a step slow on rotations. Cleveland has no one on the bench who can protect the rim, and too many players are simply on the wrong side of 30 to be impactful when the pace quickens.
The Cavaliers had three lineups that logged over 20 minutes in their four games against the Pacers. The starting five of Irving, J.R. Smith, Love, James and Thompson actually had a negative net rating. That group vastly improved improved when Shumpert played in place of Smith. Cleveland also found success with a bench-heavy group that eschewed defense in favor of bombs-away shooting. A lineup of James, Channing Frye, Kyle Korver, Shumpert and Deron Williams had a net rating of 18.1 despite a ghastly defensive rating of 123.0.
Milwaukee or Toronto—whoever advances to the second round—should be better equipped to attack those Cleveland lineups than Indiana. The Raptors should be able to downsize more effectively to combat the Cavs when Frye is in the game, with Serge Ibaka able to play on the perimeter both offensively and defensively. Patrick Patterson is another option as a big in smaller lineups, and Toronto can keep shooting on the court with P.J. Tucker and Kyle Lowry. Of course, all of this depends on the Raptors actually playing to their potential in the postseason, but they could be a deep thorn in the side of the Cavs. Toronto, unquestionably, is more talented on offense than the Pacers.
The Bucks also had a (slightly) better offense than the Pacers during the regular season, and Khris Middleton’s re-emergence makes Milwaukee a more balanced team. The Cavs only have an answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo if LeBron is willing to exert a lot more energy on the defensive end than he did in Round 1. If Milwaukee stays hot from three, the Bucks’ combination of shooting and pesky defense will make them an extremely tough out.
(The Warriors, by the way, with or without Kevin Durant or Steve Kerr, would run roughshod through the current Cavs defense. As would the Rockets. And probably the Spurs. Maybe even the Grizzlies..?)
Ultimately, Cleveland took care of its business against the Pacers, and the Cavaliers remain very much in the driver’s seat for a third straight Finals appearance. However, when it comes to flipping the switch defensively, the Cavs’ first-round performance should not inspire any more confidence than their late-season woes.