After much speculation over who LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers would play in the first round of the NBA Playoffs thanks to the constantly fluctuating Eastern Conference standings, in the end, they will matchup with the Indiana Pacers for the second consecutive postseason.
2018 NBA Playoffs Preview: (4) Cleveland Cavaliers vs (5) Indiana Pacers
Though the Pacers are a familiar foe for LeBron James dating all the way back to his Miami days, this team poses vastly different challenges. Rebuilt around a budding superstar and Most Improved Player candidate Victor Oladipo, the Pacers cause a variety of problems on both ends of the court.
The Pacers were perceived as a lottery team prior to the season after the departure of Paul George, but Indiana actually won six more games than they did last year. Though Oladipo has been a huge part of that, the overall construct and depth of the roster has paid major dividends.
Myles Turner may not have made the leap many were expecting out of him this year but the play of Domantas Sabonis off the bench has been paramount. Sabonis, who is averaging a robust 7.7 rebounds per game as a reserve, had to start for extended stretches this season with Turner sidelined and could provide serious issues for this small Cavaliers team on the glass. He along with fellow offseason acquisition Cory Joseph give the Pacers bench talent they haven’t had in years past.
Filling in the starting lineup around Oladipo and Turner are veterans Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Thaddeus Young. All three have playoff experience under their belt and along with the always pesky Lance Stephenson, Indiana’s supporting cast is a formidable threat, despite the drastic alterations made in Cleveland.
After overhauling nearly half their roster at the trade deadline, the Cavs go into the NBA Playoffs a confident team continuing to gain steam and chemistry. Winners of 11 of their past 14, LeBron James continues to play at a historic pace in his 15th season.
Despite a rollercoaster season filled with turmoil, Cleveland remains one of the favorites to come out of the East. Though largely a byproduct of LeBron’s greatness, this improved Cavs team comes loaded with shooters as opposed to the misfit pieces they had earlier on in the season.
J.R. Smith’s move to the bench has bolstered a second unit that already ran out quality playmakers such as Jordan Clarkson and to a lesser extent, Cedi Osman and Jose Calderon. With snipers Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood also heavily involved in Cleveland’s rotation, their offense remains one of the most lethal in the entire NBA.
Even with their revamped arsenal of perimeter threats, their frontcourt remains the key to how far they go in these playoffs. Versatile combo forward Jeff Green and Kevin Love have been the starting bigs for the Cavs but it remains to be seen whether Ty Lue tinkers with his lineups. Larry Nance Jr. could find himself in the starting lineup as could Osman as we’ve seen at times this year.
Both Lue and Love are getting back into the flow of things following respective medical issues at just the right time. After an inconsistent first few games back, Love has begun to round into form at the perfect juncture.
In the month of April, Love averaged 18.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and a blistering 54.3 percent from beyond the three-point line. This type of dependable productivity will be vital for the Cavs not only in the first round but through their potential playoff run.
Usually accompanied by a sidekick such as Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving, LeBron will have to rely on a lot of the offense to run through Love, something that has actually proved to work well for the Cavs.
In their four meetings this year, the Pacers came out on top three times but as we know, the playoffs are a whole different animal. This is especially the case when going up against LeBron James. Though Bogdanovic matches up with LeBron position-wise, it remains to be seen whether he will be the primary defender. Thad Young will likely be assigned James a good amount while the 4-time MVP should also see a heavy dosage of Lance Stephenson.
With the Cavs having a tendency of running smaller lineups in the postseason, the Pacers will be forced to adjust though they have the personnel to fit. Young provides a modern power forward with his athleticism and ability to stretch the floor while Myles Turner does the same at center. A natural four, Sabonis will also be forced to play center a good amount of time, something that could work to either team’s advantage.
Though the explosive Victor Oladipo may be able to catch fire and erupt for a game or two, the odds of the Pacers coming out of this series are slim. Though they enjoyed more regular season success, the outcome should be similar to last year’s playoff series between the clubs in which the Pacers got swept. An overachieving team this season with a bright future, this Pacers team may be bounced early on LeBron James’ quest for his fourth championship ring.
Game 1: Sunday, April 15, 3:30 p.m. ET in Cleveland on ABC
Game 2: Wednesday, April 18, 7 p.m. ET in Cleveland on TNT
Game 3: Friday, April 20, 7 p.m. ET in Indianapolis on ESPN
Game 4: Sunday, April 22, 8:30 p.m. ET in Indianapolis on TNT
Game 5: TBD in Cleveland(if necessary)
Game 6: TBD in Indianapolis (if necessary)
Game 7: TBD in Cleveland (if necessary)