The Cavaliers are only sort of playing the Indiana Pacers in their first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers.
That isn’t a knock on the Pacers, who have done an admirable job of providing an entertaining series thus far. Paul George is one of the better sparring partners LeBron James has ever had in the Eastern Conference, Lance Stephenson is an excellent maniacal supervillain, if not a particularly effective one, and the first two games have been close. Indiana was one shot away from winning Game 1 and stormed back with a 10–0 fourth-quarter run to turn a potential Game 2 blowout into a 117–111 loss.
But this is the first round. The Cavs have now won all 10 first-round games since James returned to Cleveland, and it would be stunning if they didn’t advance. The question is whether LeBron James can win the Eastern Conference finals for the seventh straight year and the Cavs can repeat as NBA champions. If so, their toughest opponent along the way will almost certainly be their own defense.
Cleveland’s defense is awful. The Cavs finished the season with the 22nd-ranked defense in the NBA, worst of the 16 teams to qualify for the playoffs. After the All-Star break, they were 29th out of the NBA’s 30 teams. There are so many stats in which they are super-subpar: They finished the season with the league’s worst transition defense, the fewest steals per possession, the 25th-most blocked shots, the ninth-worst defensive rebound rate. Alone, these stats indicate individual weaknesses — a team that gambles to block a lot of shots might suck at rebounding, etc. Combined, they are stunning. If you’re not forcing steals, not blocking shots, and not getting defensive rebounds, you’re essentially just standing still while the other team plays offense around you.
Coach Tyronn Lue insisted that the team was ready to flip a switch come playoff time. It had a super-secret defense (one that was actually good) to bust out when the going got tough. We sorta believed him, because the Cavs had a top-10 defense last year and featured players with strong defensive reputations like Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert.
Through two games, the switch has decisively not been flipped. In Game 1, the Cavs had a 118.9 defensive rating, which would have been the worst in the league over the course of the season. In Game 2, they had a 112.0 defensive rating, which is better, but also would have been the worst in the league over the course of the season. The Pacers were as mediocre as possible on offense during the regular season — they finished 15th in offensive rating — so the Cavs should be able to make them look bad, or average, or at least not extremely good.
The Cavs are winning because its defense has managed to pass the (easy) test posed by Indy. Monday night, all three members of Cleveland’s Big Three scored 25 points for the first time in their three postseasons together. Kyrie Irving got torched frequently by Jeff Teague, who finished with 23 points on just 12 shots. But Irving torched Teague even more frequently, finishing with 37 points. The Cavs hit 13 3s after hitting 11 in Game 1. They shot 55 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep, and hit 20 of 23 free throws. (Do people care about teamwide 50–40–90s? The Cavs needed one more FT to pull it off.) The idea of the Cavs beating the Pacers isn’t particularly exciting. When you think of it as the Cavs firing on all cylinders in an attempt to frantically make up for their own defensive failures, it’s much more fun.
It’s going to be hard to get worked up about any matchup the Cavaliers face before the Finals since there’s no other LeBron-like player in the world, let alone the Eastern Conference, and LeBron’s trips to the Finals have become routine. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a nemesis: a porous defense that makes any opponent a worthy adversary.