For the second game in a row, the Cavaliers put on a half-quarter display of excellence for the annals, en route to a 109-97 defeat of the Indiana Pacers in a game that was never really that close.
Two nights after an 18-2 run at the midway point in the first put away the Wizards early, the Cavaliers came out with an even quicker flurry that evoked the first round savagery of early Mike Tyson. The Cavs hit the Pacers so hard at the outset, you found yourself glancing over at the paramedics. They held a 27-8 lead with 4:52 left in the first.
As is the model for Cavs success, the team defended well at the outset. Kyrie Irving followed up his talk about his intent to become a good defensive guard by fighting over the top of the picks and getting into good defensive position. Blatt recently complimented Irving’s defense, though to these eyes, it’s more a case of greater effort than better fundamentals. Still, it’s a start. He had a double-double with a career high 10 boards, 24 points and 5 assists. He even came up with this nifty block on C.J. Watson.
The rotations are becoming better, and even when out-of-sync, effort is making up for mistakes. Here the rotations are hardly seamless but still effective, resulting in a well-challenged drive to the hoop.
Now it certainly didn’t hurt that the Pacers are a hollow shell of the team that took the Heat to the limit last year. Injuries have sapped them of George Hill, Paul George, and Roy Hibbert. But David West is no slouch, and here despite good position, Kevin Love comes over top and knocks the ball away, sparking a fast-break opportunity. (Coach David Blatt commented after the game that Love’s playing the best defense of his career.)
Love was a big part of the breakout run, scoring scored 16 of the team’s first 26 points. Anderson Varejao sat with a sore rib, which moved Tristan Thompson (13 points, 11 rebounds) into the starting role. The thing is that when “Wild Thing” is in there, he’s the recipient of lots of pick and roll action with LeBron — because he is so good at cutting to the basket and the two of them have such a strong connection (like Brady to Welker).
Without Varejao, Love receives more pick and roll opportunities. Blatt’s used the Love/LeBron pick and roll at times, but infrequently and never for sustained stretches like they did to open the Pacers game. Here you can see how difficult it is to guard. Yet they don’t use it but a handful of times a game. It’s almost as though Blatt doesn’t want to give opponents too many looks at it until he needs it.
Love only made five shots (and five free throws) the other three quarters for a final total of 28 points. Asked if this was a breakout gamed afterwards, Love subtly alluded to Blatt’s usage. “I wouldn’t say it was a breakout game, I think I was efficient,” said Love of his 9-13 night from the field. “Maybe a breakout first quarter. It felt good for me. They were finding me.”
Naturally the Cavs gave up a 13-2 run to close out the first as like a third grader among toddlers, they appeared to grow bored with the ease. The second quarte wasn’t much better, despite 11 from Irving and another 6 from Love. Irving is just so difficult to stop when he’s going to the hole, as he does here.
After allowing the Pacers to close it to 52-49 after an uninspired second, the Cavs came out in the third and beat them like the Pacers owed them money, crushing them 35-22 in the quarter behind 68% shooting. LeBron took over with 11 points and 3 assists. Blatt leaned heavily on the starters in the third, playing James, Love and Shawn Marion the entire quarter, earning the right to sit them most or all of the fourth. It’s great strategy – so long as it works. Here it did, propelling the team to an 87-71 lead that the shorthanded Pacers simply lacked the firepower to reverse. It doesn’t help when LeBron hits shots like these.
James was upbeat about the team’s progress. “We’re contesting more shots. We’re understanding what teams are running, and I think we’re just making a conscious effort to understand how important it is to play defensively,” LeBron said during his postgame post-mortem. “It’s a lot easier offensively when you’re not taking the ball out of the net, and we’ve done that the last few games.”
Coach Jason Kidd brings his Milwaukee Bucks in on Tuesday, and he’s got them playing very well. This team was only challenged by the 76ers in their ineptitude last year, but they’re 10-8 this year and ahead of the Cavaliers for a playoff spot. This is precisely the type of team you’d expect the Cavaliers to have a let-down against after three strong games. It will be a little telling how they respond.
Then again, nobody’s expecting this team not to make the playoffs. In that context, this is a European meal, with hours of sitting around before the main course arrives. Enjoy the apps.