The NBA playoffs begin today with many intriguing matchups. With many surprise teams and players this season, it seems possible that the NBA Finals will not be between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors for a fourth straight season.
One of those surprising teams is the Indiana Pacers, who had their best year since the 2013-14 season. They are led by one of the league’s most surprising players, Victor Oladipo, who will most likely win the NBA’s Most Improve Player Award.
The Cavs dealt with a lot of drama this season, but it appears they are ready to go after finishing the season 11-3. LeBron James will look to remain undefeated in the first round of the playoffs.
Both these teams met in the first round of the playoffs last season, with the Cavs coming out on top in a sweep. Let’s take a look at how both of these teams matchup this season.
Regular season summary
A lot of people have been freaking out about the Cavs this season, even though they only lost one more game this season than last season.
One of the main differences from last season to this season is that the conference got better. The Toronto Raptors finished at the top, followed by the Boston Celtics and most surprisingly, the Philadelphia 76ers. After a loss to the Pacers on March 13, the Sixers were sitting at 36-30. However, a franchise record of 16 straight wins, including one over Cleveland, pushed them ahead of the Cavs to the third seed.
The second difference with the Cavs from last season to this season is defense. The defense ranked 20th last season, which isn’t that impressive, but it was better than its 26th ranking this season.
Teams shoot 47.4 percent from the field against the Cavs, which is the third highest in the NBA, and 36.8 percent from three, which is the ninth highest. They also finished just 24th in steals, 28th in blocks and 27th in forced turnovers. Most recently, the Cavs have allowed 110 and 109 to the Knicks, 132 to the 76ers and 115 to Washington. That is not the kind of defense you want to bring to the playoffs.
What helped the Cavs get by this season was their fifth-ranked offense, which averaged 110.9 points per game. They are also one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA as they shoot 37.2 percent from deep, good for sixth in the league. They share the ball fairly well too, ranking 12th in assists.
What also gives Cavs fans hope is the fact their team has the league’s best player, LeBron James. James averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game while shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from three. Keep in mind that James is 33 years old and in his 15th season. This is also the first time in his career he has played all 82 games and he led the NBA in minutes played, so he has to be feeling pretty good going into this postseason. Oh, and James is 12-0 in the first round of the playoffs.
James has a very nice supporting cast around him as well. Kevin Love has been his main sidekick this season, averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while shooting 41.5 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson, Jeff Green and Rodney Hood have also averaged over 10 points per game each. Clarkson and Hood were acquired before the trade deadline along with George Hill and Larry Nance Jr., who have also performed well with the Cavs.
The Cavs’ bench was very productive, finishing sixth in points per game, third in field goal percentage and second in 3-point percentage. Even if the bench struggles, James has proven in the playoffs that he can put the team on his back.
No one questions the Cavs offense. It is the defense that has held them back this season. They will need to improve defensively if they want to make another Finals run.
Who would have thought we would be seeing the Pacers in the playoffs? After they traded away Paul George, it seemed the Pacers were tanking and going to rebuild mode.
However, the Pacers won six more games than they did last season to earn the fifth seed in the East. Indiana has now made the playoffs three straight seasons and seven times in the last eight seasons.
The player the Pacers got in return for George, Victor Oladipo, has been the main reason for success on the team. Oladipo is averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals per game, all career highs. He also shot 47.7 from the field and 37.1 percent from the 3-point line, also both career highs.
As a team, Indiana was average offensively, finishing in the middle of the pack with 105.6 points per game. However, they were very efficient, shooting 47.2 percent from the field, good for sixth in the league. They also shoot well from three, finishing eighth in the league at 36.9 percent. They know how to take care of the ball too as they have the fifth fewest turnovers in the league.
One area they could improve on offensively is sharing the ball. They ranked 23rd in assists. Making extra passes to get better shots would be helpful, but they already shoot the ball pretty efficiently as is.
Unlike the Cavs, the Pacers play pretty good defense. They ranked ninth in opponent points, fifth in opponent 3-point percentage, third in steals and third in forced turnovers. They are also very good at turning those turnovers into points as they rank second in points off turnovers.
Surrounding Oladipo is Myles Turner, Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Domantas Sabonis. All of those guys average over 10 points per game. Turner was also third in the NBA in blocks per game at 1.82.
The bench has not contributed as many points as they rank 22nd in the league in that category. But that is mostly because the Pacers’ starters play the seventh most minutes in the league. The bench, like the team overall, has been efficient shooting the ball though, finishing eighth in field goal percentage.
The Pacers are a pretty balanced team. They are efficient on offense and play great team defense. The defense is going to have its hands full though as it will be taking on some of the NBA’s top offenses if they keep advancing. It might help them out offensively to move the ball around a bit more too.
Breakdown and predictions
Offensively, the Cavs got the Pacers beat. The Cavs finished ahead in all the main offensive categories and have the league’s best offensive player in James. The Cavs’ bench also has the edge on the Pacers’ bench.
Neither team rebounds the ball very well, so that will be something to keep an eye on. However, Indiana averaged a bit more offensive rebounds and second-chance points than Cleveland in the regular season. If they are going to keep up with Cleveland’s offense, they will need to make every offensive opportunity count.
The Pacers do have the Cavs beaten defensively. If the Pacers want any chance of winning this series, they must stop either James or the Cavs from shooting threes. They will also need to put their ability to steal the ball and score on turnovers to good use.
Cleveland has a bit more star power on their roster than Indiana too, as well as the league’s best player. James averaged 28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game against Indiana this season. In the first-round series between the Cavs and Pacers last season, James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks per game. It is safe to say Indiana will not be stopping James in this series.
Indiana may have gone 3-1 against the Cavs in the regular season, but everybody knows the regular season is meaningless in the playoffs.
It is also very tough to bet against LeBron James in the playoffs. James’ career averages in the playoffs are 28.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.9 assists and is also 12-0 in the first round.
Indiana lacks star power other than Oladipo. Despite the Cavs’ defensive struggles, the offense should be good enough to get out of the first round. Indiana will most likely be exiting in the first round for a third straight season until they can bring more stars to town. However, Indiana’s defense is good enough to steal one game and avoid a sweep like last season.
Cavaliers in five
Featured image by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
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