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3 keys and a lock: Cavs-Pacers preview

Jake Chapman looks at Cavs opening round matchup

Jake Chapman
April 15, 2018 - 9:50 am
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The 2nd season for this iteration of the Cleveland Cavaliers will be another jolt and gear-shift in a year that promised to be a rocky road and yet turned into a winding, tumultuous trek through some sort of foreboding basketball canyon. From the day Kyrie Irving was traded to Boston, we knew this season would be a bit kooky. But nobody could have predicted this amount of kookiness. There was soup. There was politics. There was Derrick Rose.

What all that kookiness has yielded is the 4-seed in a relatively weak conference, led by the still-undisputed best player in the league and featuring a slew of relatively green yet spunky side-kicks alongside a solid veteran supporting cast. It’d appear the Cavs have a date with the Toronto Raptors in round 2, but first they’ll do battle with the upstart Indiana Pacers. It’s a rematch from a season ago that couldn’t be more different. Here are 3 keys and a lock as we prepare for round 1.

Key 1: Darren Collison

The Pacers won the regular season series 3-1, but the two teams haven’t met since the Cavs remade their roster at the trade deadline. Still, Darren Collison was a common factor in the three Pacer wins, and he had great splits in all four matchups with Cleveland this season, averaging 18 points, 5.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game alongside 68% FG and 75% 3-point shooting. With all the attention paid to backcourt-mate Victor Oladipo, Collison will have opportunities, and he’ll need to seize on them if the Pacers are going to have a shot.

Key 2: Kevin Love/Myles Turner matchup

Kevin Love has played incredibly well of late, Myles Turner has not. In 5 games in April, Love shot 54% on 3-pointers and averaged 4.6 free throw attempts per night. The free throws are a big key. Love’s two best months of the season came in November and December when he averaged about 19 and 22 points per game respectively. He also averaged 5.6 and 4.5 free throws per game in those 2 months, high-water marks until the abridged month of April came around. Meanwhile Turner has taken a step back in his 3rd season and he’s had an especially rough go of it coming down the stretch. He averaged just 7.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in his last ten games of the regular season, and he’s much more comfortable protecting the rim and offering weak-side help than he is navigating pick and pop sets and Kevin Love pump-fakes 20 feet from the basket. Love should be able to own this matchup.

Key 3: Giveaways and freebies

There are 3 simple keys to any basketball game: Rebounds, turnovers and free throws. The boards will likely break even, Indiana is 19th and Cleveland 22nd in rebound rate. But the turnovers and free throws could tell the story. The Pacers' only shot in this series is likely to turn the Cavs over a lot, and that’d be a monumental upset. The Cavs have actually turned the ball over less since the trade-deadline overhaul, an odd thought considering the amount of inexperience and lack of cohesion those moves brought. The Cavs finished the season 9th in turnover percentage with 13.7 per 100 possessions, but in their last 15 games they were even better, a rate of 12.4. The Pacers need to manufacture offense with their defense; they turned their opponents over 14.8 times per game in the regular season, 2nd-best in the league, and they averaged 19.2 points off turnovers per game, 3rd-best in the league. This is where the series will be decided, in my opinion. The Pacers will need the Cavs to turn the ball over, and the Cavs just won’t.

As for free throws, both teams do a great job of defending without fouling. The Cavs actually do a great job of defending without defending (heh.) Both teams are top-5 in terms of keeping opponents off the line, but the Cavs shot 23.3 free throws per game in the regular season, good for 8th in the league. The Pacers were 26th in the league at 19.2. Four free throw attempts per game isn’t a massive spread, but one of the Cavs’ main objectives will be to attack the hoop with ancillary ball handlers like Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and George Hill. If they do that, and if Love can chip in those 5 or so free throw attempts a night, Ty Lue will be a happy camper.

The Lock: The Cavs are a lock to win this series, likely in 4 or 5 games. The Pacers’ strengths are not the Cavs' weaknesses, and Cleveland still has the 2 best players in the series. Indy has been a great story, an over-achieving group left for dead before the season even started. They’re also a shining beacon for any front office who doesn’t want to try and lose historically for 5 seasons in order to rebuild. This is a different Pacers team from last season’s opening round sweep at the hand of the Cavs; they have a different superstar, a different group and a different identity. And although the Cavs are quite different themselves, the result of the series will likely be the exact same.

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