The NBA postseason began Saturday afternoon with game one of the 7-2 matchup in the Eastern Conference between the Indiana Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The two teams were heading into the playoffs in seemingly opposite directions; Indiana rattled off 5 straight wins to clinch a berth whereas the defending champs had suffered 4 consecutive losses. The prevailing story line of the series remains the showdown between Paul George and LeBron James, and the opener did not disappoint. The two stars led their respective teams in scoring, both making momentum-shifting plays at various points of the game.
In the end, the Cavs were able to stave off a late Pacers rally and defend their home court in game 1. Indiana's CJ Miles missed a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer (we'll get to that), and the final score was 109-108. Indiana had taken a 2 point lead late in the 4th quarter, but failed to execute in the final minutes and came up just short.
Here are the biggest takeaways for Indiana from game 1:
The Cavs are targeting Jeff Teague, and Indiana did nothing to prevent it
This was the most glaring issue I saw defensively for the Pacers. Time after time after time, the Cavs would run a Kyrie Irving-LeBron James pick-and-roll, leaving Jeff Teague all alone guarding James. Now, common knowledge would dictate that after one, possibly two instances of the 6'2" Teague guarding James, a literal M1 Abrams tank, that Indiana would attempt to change their game plan slightly and bring help defense. Quite the opposite. James subsequently scored at the rim at will, often drawing a foul on the helpless Teague or whichever Pacers player was late on their rotation.
In the coming games, Indiana needs to recognize and counter the Irving-James pick and roll more effectively early on. The solution isn't necessarily as simple as "just don't switch," but George should be capable of going through an Irving screen. If Teague does end up isolated on James, Myles Turner, Thad Young, or more simply, whoever is guarding Tristan Thompson at the time should bring help quicker. If Thompson gets the ball and makes a shot, fine, but you'd rather give up two points to a Thompson lucky bounce than have James get whatever he wants in the paint.
Paul George is still on a tear
The NBA's Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April hasn't missed a beat going into the postseason. George was excellent Saturday, scoring 29 points, hitting 6/8 from 3-point range, and dishing out 7 assists.? The final possession notwithstanding (again, we'll get there), Pacers fans should be ecstatic with George's play. If he can play like he did Saturday for the entire series, the Pacers have a serious chance to elongate this first round to a full 7 games.
George's reputation as a "LeBron stopper" has always been a bit of a misconception. Truthfully, James always plays quite well against George, albeit less efficient. The actual value of George's game lies in the fact that he is one of the few players in the NBA who can actually remain neck-and-neck with James for an entire game. If James scores 32 as he did Saturday, it's a very good bet that George is going to be around that scoring total as well.
Myles Turner still has some growing up to do
This isn't a knock on Tuner by any means; I still firmly believe he's going to end up as a top-3 player from the 2015 draft. But today's game was a microcosm of Turner's sophomore season: great potential on both ends of the court, but still a ways to go before it gets consistent. There are times when Turner can unfathomably pull down a rebound between three opposing players, and there are other moments where he seemingly forgets how to box out. There are times when he blocks the stuffing out of anything and everything that moves into the restricted area, and there are also games when he loses balance and gets into foul trouble too easily. On offense, Turner can be devastatingly efficient in the paint, or he can also mire himself in a jump-shooting slump.
Today, Tuner went through essentially every phase, gobbling up 4 offensive and defensive rebounds, but also allowing some key extra possessions late for Cleveland. It doesn't help that Turner is often matched up with Thompson, a man whose powers seemingly double during the playoffs. But if Indiana wants to remain competitive, they'll need more contribution from their promising young center.
That final play
(Credit reddit user 33bour for the Streamable) .
Here we are, essentially the opposite of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals game 1. With a chance to steal a victory in Cleveland and deflate the Cavaliers' hopes, Indiana stumbled into a CJ Miles jump shot at the buzzer that came up short. There were several head-scratching moments from this play, but we'll just look at the basics.
First, on the previous Pacers possession, Paul George grabbed the inbounds pass, moved right to the 3-point line, and promptly drilled a cold-blooded shot to bring Indiana within 1 point. On the play, he was being tracked by both James and J.R. Smith in what would have been a double team had George not taken the shot immediately.
On the next Pacers possession, Indiana called a timeout and somehow didn't anticipate that Cleveland might try the same tactic if George got the ball again. Cue Indiana inbounding to George on an isolation. Seconds later, James comes to double-team him. George frantically passed the ball to Miles, who dribbled inside the 2-point arc, shook off a Richard Jefferson contest, and missed the fadeaway game-winner.
Now, the Pacers should be fine with a Paul George isolation play to close a game, but a timeout quite frankly isn't needed in that situation. If the Pacers had just run a play off of the missed James shot, they could have possibly made their way down the court for a quick bucket before Cleveland could set their defense. Secondly, George should have anticipated the double-team more quickly and looked for a pass out with more time on the clock. Finally, George should have immediately cut inside after his pass to try and get a look at a last-second layup attempt instead of rolling around the double team and trying for a trailing three. In all honesty, Miles did get a decent look for the final shot, but it was clear that every Pacers player was anticipating George taking the last attempt.
Regardless, the Cavs did what they were supposed to do and win on their home court. A 1-point loss to the defending champions is deflating but could wind up an encouraging sign for Indiana in the coming days. Game 2 is Monday in Cleveland, and Indiana will look to close the deal this time.