- LeBron had won 21 straight first-round playoff games coming into Sunday's game against the Pacers. After Indiana handed the Cavs a thorough beatdown, should LeBron and Co. be worried?
Adversity is always relative for LeBron James.
It’s been years and years since James has faced anything resembling April panic. His Heat and Cavaliers teams swept through the first round of the playoffs every season from 2013 to 2017, and he entered Sunday’s Game 1 against Indiana riding a 21-game winning streak in the first round.
The Pacers not only snapped that streak with a 98-80 road win, they did so in convincing fashion: They doubled up the score in the first quarter, withstood a James-led second-half rally and held the Cavaliers to their second-lowest point total of the season. While James had a triple double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists), Victor Oladipo diced Cleveland’s defense for a game-high 32 points, making Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert pay for saying last summer that Indiana “could have done better” in the Paul George trade.
There are genuine causes of concern for Cleveland, but James made it clear that he is untroubled.
“I’ve always stayed at an even keel with the postseason,” he said. “I mean, I’m down 0-1 in the first round. I was down 3-1 in the Finals, so I’m the last guy you’re going to ask about how you’re going to feel the next couple of days."
Indeed, James has faced stiffer competition than the Pacers and he’s faced bigger playoff deficits. That’s an indisputable fact given that he authored the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history against the 73-win Warriors.
But this loss stands as an outlier amidst James’s long record of postseason dominance. Prior to Sunday, he had never lost a Game 1 in the first round, he hadn’t lost any first-round game since 2012 and he hadn’t lost a first-round game by this wide of a margin since 2008. James has obviously been in tighter spots, but Sunday’s defeat should be mildly alarming because it was so out of step from his usual standard.
James and the Cavaliers simply can’t afford to brush off the Pacers, who maintained their composure down the stretch and outshot Cleveland from beyond the arc. Under coach Nate McMillan, the Pacers struck the right balance between relishing their role as David versus Goliath while also comporting themselves as if they belonged on the big stage, despite their youth and unexpected success.
“We’ve been playing hard on both ends all year, it just hasn’t been magnified,” Oladipo said. “It’s the playoffs and now everybody sees it. It’s kind of shocking to everybody. We’ve been playing our butts off. We’re fully aware of LeBron and his team, and we know it’s not going to be easy. But we’re not going to come in here and just fold. We’re planning on winning.”
Before Cleveland turns its attention to slowing down Oladipo, it must first confront its own woes. There are many. George Hill was limited to 19 minutes after taking a shot to the back during a screen. Rodney Hood, making his first career postseason start, managed just nine points in 21 minutes. Jordan Clarkson, making his playoff debut, scored just six points in 21 minutes. And Jeff Green, a recent addition to Cleveland’s starting lineup, somehow managed to finish scoreless (on 0-7 shooting) and collect just four rebounds in 27 minutes.
“The [Pacers] came in and dictated the tempo, they were more aggressive,” James said. “They played inspired basketball. They took advantage of everything we wanted to do. They were more physical at the point of attack. They were more precise. We couldn’t score the ball. Eighty points is definitely not going to cut it.”
James has long described Game 1s as “feel-out games,” but he arguably spent too much time Sunday feeling rather than doing. His concerted efforts to involve his teammates early in the game failed to pay dividends, as Cleveland managed just 14 first-quarter points and none of his fellow starters finished with double figures. Collectively, Cleveland shot just 8-34 (24%) from deep and managed only 10 fast-break points. The Cavaliers looked a step slow in all phases and never established a true rhythm.
“You can’t ease into the playoffs,” lamented Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue.
The Cavaliers looked like a mish-mashed group of new faces, some of whom may have been taken aback by the playoff intensity, rather than a team that is seeking to make its fourth straight Finals. That wasn’t entirely surprising, given that only three of James’s teammates—Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson—have been in Cleveland since 2015.
The answer to virtually every problem for the Cavaliers during these playoffs will be for James to accept more burden on his shoulders. If Cleveland’s health woes continue, James indicated that he may do more facilitating from the post, much like he did during an injury-plagued run through the 2015 playoffs. He will also need to establish himself as a scoring option early to help unlock the shooters around him. Meanwhile, Lue should consider shifting Smith back into the starting lineup given his experience and familiarity with James.
Indiana’s thorough victory sent a clear message to James, even if he took the defeat in stride. This group isn’t going to wilt or stand in awe at his presence. Although overreacting to a series-opening loss would be silly for Cleveland, failing to react is hardly a viable option.