The Cleveland Cavaliers are returning to Northeast Ohio with a 2-2 tied series after an … eventful Game 4 against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night. More on Game 4 in a moment. The 2-2 series somehow simultaneously reflects a great blessing for the Cavaliers and a series of squandered opportunities. The Cavaliers have looked like the better team for stretches, but the Indiana Pacers’ dogged relentlessness — typified by their stellar team defense and tough shot-making — has given them a chance to win every game in the series.
DirecTV tried to give the Cavs help this afternoon with some wishful thinking. When going to record the game, I noticed something a little off in my cable box’s program description of Game 4.
Did you catch that? If you weren’t too distracted by the Big Bang Theory marathon or the possibility of solving your back pain, you would have seen that there was a Charlotte Hornets logo in the program description’s picture. Whether this was the result of a DirecTV technician who’s a Cavs fan trying to summon some good karma, a supervisor with a god-complex testing the limits of his or her overestimated powers, or (most likely) a stoned weekend intern still recovering from Friday who doesn’t know or care about the difference between the Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers. In any event, it got me thinking about how it would have played out if the Charlotte Hornets had showed up to play the Cavaliers in Game 4.
“Wow, in a startling turn of events, the Charlotte HORNETS will be playing the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of this first-round Eastern Conference Playoff series. … This is highly unorthodox, to say the least. It’s pandemonium here in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, as madness and mayhem reign supreme. The Charlotte Hornets are taking the Pacers’ place on the bench. An understandably remonstrative Pacers team is protesting at halfcourt. On such short notice, the Hornets have only been able to summon four players, none of which are Kemba Walker. But the Cavaliers are ready to go, and the jump ball is up. LeBron James recovers the tipped jump ball coasts to an easy slam dunk with Willy Hernangomez the only Hornet player in play — the rest are hurriedly tying their shoes and taping their ankles on the bench. An avalanche of beer and soda is falling on the court, Pacers players are pushing and shoving both teams, and Lance Stephenson has just thrown what I believe was a Molotov cocktail on the court. … The court is now on fire, just like the Cavaliers — who have now made four uncontested layups to go up 8-0. Lance Stephenson is now brandishing menacingly at officials what appears to be a scimitar — its’ a curved sword widespread in the Middle East during the height of the Ottoman Empire. I, Marv Albert, who is already in state of permanent confusion, am now very very confused. …”
That could have been fun, but I reckon it’s for the best they played a basketball game between the real scheduled teams that the Cavs won. Let’s go behind the box score.
16: Like Game 3, the Cavaliers had a large first-half lead that they were unable to maintain, as evidenced by the final score. The Cavaliers had a 16-point lead in the first half, leading 49-33 with 6:01 in the second quarter and 60-50 at halftime. The Pacers’ largest lead of the game was three points, and yet the Cavaliers were still fortunate to have emerged with a win. Look at the Lead Tracker from NBA.com below. That’s more wine than a divorcees’ book club night. But the Cavaliers were unable to maintain leads and keep the Pacers at a non-lethal distance in both games at Indiana, losing one game and nearly losing another.
8: It’s a trope of the NBA playoffs that games are won by unheralded role players. One need look no further Bojan Bogdanovic’s 30 points in Game 3 for a prime example of one of the less-celebrated players on a team deciding a playoff game. I wouldn’t venture to call Kyle Korver’s eight fourth quarter points in Game 4 as deciding the contest, but his two three-pointers with 3:48 and 2:29 remaining felt like life-preservers for what was a drowning, soon-to-be dead Cavaliers team. The first came with the Cavaliers trailing 91-93, giving them a lead they didn’t relinquish. The second three-pointer gave the Cavs a four-point lead that felt distance enough to out-dog paddle the Pacers to shore. Watch Korver levitate to unleash the second clutch three below.
PURE 🎯🎯🎯 pic.twitter.com/NZfQPDqYlO
— NBA (@NBA) April 23, 2018
Before throwing the Cavaliers a lifeline in the second half with some monstrous shots, Korver was shooting 4-of-17 (23.5 percent) on three-point field goals in the series, a great deal below his upper-echelon 43.6 percent in the regular season. He was 0-for-3 from the field in both Game 1 and 3 — not so coincidentally, the Cavalier losses. It seems unfair to judge a guy on three shot attempts, especially when three-pointers are (relatively) low probability and high variance. But if Korver isn’t drilling threes, he’s not helping the team much out there. He’s a defensive liability and the target of opponents’ offensive bullying, even if his effort is admirable.
Korver needs to make shots not only to score points (yay!), but also to draw attention from the defense and improve the Cavs’ spacing, as he did in the fourth quarter after the two back-breakers when LeBron James scored a one-on-one layup opportunity on the opposite side of the court while six Pacer eyeballs and feet followed Korver. Without those two Korver shots, you might have been reading a Cavaliers obituary instead of recap of a victory. Oh, he also sank two free throws to ice the game. If Korver’s hot hand and the defensive-warping gravity he creates continue in Game 5 and beyond, the Cavaliers will probably win the series.
32/13/7: Another casually great game from LeBron James, in which he notched 32 points (on 54.5 percent shooting), 13 rebounds, and seven assists, all figures which led the team. There are many astounding things about James and his career, but maybe the most impressive thing is his consistent, casual, ho-hum greatness. Victor Oladipo has been great this series, but his team almost survived a 5-for-20 performance from him in Game 4. The Cavs can’t survive that from James. Is there anyone else in the NBA who can shrug his way to a 32/13/7, and it’s not even a remotely big deal? Casual greatness. I wonder if James’ casual greatness translates off the basketball court. Like, if James makes a bowl of Raisin Bran at home, is it like … a phenomenal bowl of Raisin Bran?
James had a slow start in the second half (only one point for a made free throw in the third quarter), but was still able to bring it home with help from Korver, scoring eight points in the final frame. Adding to the degree of difficulty, James struggled from deep after being consistent on deep balls throughout the season (4-of-7 in Game 3), missing all five of his three-point attempts on Sunday. If he makes one or two of those and opens the court a bit, we’re talking about another 40-point playoff game from James right now.
12: It’s no mystery that the Cavaliers have been hurting for help from the peripheral, non-James players in the series. It hasn’t always been there. Jordan Clarkson provided a huge boost off the bench (especially in the first half), chipping in a crucial 12 points on an 5-of-9 shooting. Just as important as the points themselves was the aggressiveness with which he earned them, when too many of the secondary Cavaliers have been too passive in getting buckets. Clarkson was fearless and attacked the rim, something the Cavaliers could use more of.
35: J.R. Smith didn’t have his best shooting night overall (4-of-12, 12 points), but he gave 35 minutes and 17 seconds of stellar effort all night. Smith has given the most consistent defensive effort among the Cavaliers all series — yeah, I’m as surprised as you are. His persistence shadowing Oladipo and standing up to bigs in the post on switches has been the difference between the Cavaliers being 2-2 and in a much darker, more despondent place. He also hit a vintage Earlian three-quarters court shot at the end of the first quarter that gave the Cavs just enough breathing room to steal a win on the road.
11: Kevin Love has not been great in this series. Love had only five points on 2-of-10 shooting on Sunday. But the Cavaliers still needed all 11 of his rebounds desperately, including his five offensive rebounds when the Cavs only had eight as a team. Love also actually defended fantastically on Sunday, contesting shots at the rim, trapping on Oladipo when he could, and staying with people like Darren Collison when left alone on a switch.
Love has been frustrated with fouls over the last two games, in particular on the offensive end, as — and I mean this as a compliment — the Pacers have mastered the art of invading someone’s personal place, only to exaggerate contact when it does occur. Or, as I call it, “Varejao-ing.” It’s like two kids in the backseat in the car, and the Pacers have their finger an inch from your face going, “I’m not touching you I’m not touching you I’m not touching y-” until you inevitably slap their hand away, triggering a scolding from mom. Well, the officials are mom and they’ve done a lot of yelling at Kevin Love in Game 3 and 4.
Love had two quick fouls (one offensive) in Game 4, and was never able to establish a rhythm. Other examples of the Pacers’ finger-in-the-face instigating include: Stephenson placing his hands uncomfortably close to James’ nether region (James slapped them away), Collison exaggerating contact with J.R. Smith at midcourt after blocking Smith’s path (the officials whistled Smith), Stephenson clinging to James before an in-bounds pass (James received a technical for pushing him away), Bogdanovic literally grappling James like a high school wrestler and falling down when James lowered his shoulder into him, Stephenson headlocking Jeff Green in a controversial foul call at the end of the game,1 and just Lance Stephenson’s general demeanor toward everything.
76.2 percent: The Pacers are in and could be winning this series because they’ve had a variety of players step up in every game. In Game 1, it was Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, in Game 3 it was Bogdanovic, in Game 4 it was Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Turner and Sabonis combined for 76.1 percent (16-of-21) shooting in Game 4, absolutely killing Cavs rallies and keeping the Pacers in the game. Each of the bigs hit at least one three (Turner was three-of-four), Turner hit some killer contested shots in the second half, and Sabonis was knocking down jumpers and doing his best Anthony Davis impression in the pick-and-roll. As subpar as the Cavs have been in this series, Give the Pacers some credit for dudes just balling out and making tough shots when needed.
7: Tristan Thompson played for seven minutes after receiving three DNPs in Games 1-3.2 Thompson had a plus/minus of +7 despite having one rebound and a turnover as his only recordable statistics in seven minutes in 28 seconds. I have no idea how to interpret or contextualize this information.
It’s been a fascinating series, and I don’t have any idea where it will go from here. But the Cavs have a tied series with two games remaining at home. It’s hard to say what’s more improbable at this stage: the Cavs winning two more games or the Cavs losing two more games. They both seem highly unlikely despite being mutually exclusive and an exhaustive list of the possible outcomes. In other words, it seems impossible the Cavs could win this series and impossible the Cavs could lose this series, yet one of those has to happen barring some serious violations of NBA rules or space-time. Should be fun to see what transpires.