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NBA playoffs primer: Looking at biggest threat to Cavs in first round

LeBron James, Victor Oladipo

Heading into their Friday matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers last week during the 2017-18 NBA season, there was a lot on the line for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The winner of this game will likely go on to be the third seed in this year’s Eastern Conference playoffs.

Well, after getting absolutely thrashed in the first half, the Cavs were almost able to complete the comeback. The game ended in the final moments as LeBron James missed the second of three free throw attempts, and Larry Nance Jr. failed to tip in James’ final attempt to tie the game. The Wine and Gold lost 132-130 in what was one of the most entertaining games this season.

With the loss, the Cavs fell to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and the Sixers to third. But, there is still a slight chance the Cavs can finish third if they win both games in their home and home with the New York Knicks and the Sixers drop any of their last three games.

Until things change though, it is safe to assume the Cavaliers will be heading into the playoffs next weekend as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, a first for a LeBron James-led squad. In a season already filled to the brim with adversity, this will just add to it.

There are plenty of reasons for why the Cavs fell to the fourth seed, but the most obvious is the Eastern Conference is continuously getting better. With a lower seed, the Cavs will have a harder path to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year and today, we will take a closer look at the Cavs likely first-round opponent, the Indiana Pacers.

Round 1: Cleveland Cavaliers (4) v. Indiana Pacers (5)

The scariest team that the Cavaliers can face in the first round is by far the Indiana Pacers. Originally slotted to win around 32 games, the Pacers have exceeded everyone’s expectations this season. Led by Victor Oladipo, the team is currently projected to finish 49-33 and the fifth seed in the East. This is pretty incredible after the Pacers traded away superstar forward Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer.

The Cavs should be ready for a dogfight against the Pacers, as they were 1-3 against Naptown this season. The worst loss was the Cavs first game in Indianapolis this season, mostly at the hands of Oladipo:

But, there is a silver lining to their losing record, as the “Old Cavs” squared off against the Pacers earlier this season. After blowing up half their roster, the Pacers have not faced any of the new players on the roster.

Here are the projected starting units for both the Pacers and the Cavs:

At point guard, it is a near wash for both sides. George Hill is the perfect point guard to pair alongside LeBron James but Darren Collison is the slightly better guard. But, the threat James presents on defense is so massive that it can leave Hill pretty wide open from the perimeter. Hill also can lock down Oladipo, while Collison cannot provide the defense Hill does. Defense wins championships and this gives the Cavs a slight advantage at the one spot.

With the two guard, the clear advantage goes to the Pacers with Oladipo. Arguably the league’s most improved player and a semi-serious MVP threat, the Pacers live and die by Oladipo. While Rodney Hood is a great shooting guard, he just is not as dynamic as Oladipo. Hood will need to put up consistent numbers and stay healthy to remain a factor, but the shooting guard spot easily goes to the Pacers.

The Cavs have their own advantage at the next spot in the battle between King James and Bojan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic is a sniper from beyond the arc and is a player that can be a difference maker like Rodney Hood. James, on the other hand, should be this year’s MVP and can kill the Pacers all over the place on offense. On defense, the Cavs can hide James on Thaddeus Young, and allow him to conserve his energy. When they do that, it just makes the advantage at small forward even greater. James decimated the Pacers last season in the playoffs, and may do the same this year:

When it comes to the four spot, it is almost a wash like the point guard battle between both teams. Thaddeus Young is the quintessential stretch-four but is not a stalwart defender. Because of this, the Cavs will force the issue and run offensive attacks from James or Kevin Love to exploit the matchup. Jeff Green, on the other hand, is a pretty respectable defender. So much so that Ty Lue believes Green earned his starting spot for his defense alone. He will have his hands full defending Young, Bogdanovic, and even Myles Turner, but he should fit the bill. Green is also a pretty steady option on offense for the Cavs and for that reason, it gives him a slight advantage over Young.

Finally, at the five spot, it will be a battle between Kevin Love and Myles Turner. Both players have a similar playstyle with the ability to stretch the floor and rebound with reckless abandon. But, Love is just a much more polished and talented player compared to Turner and because of that, the Cavs get a pretty easy advantage. Turner will be an X-Factor for Indiana, but Love has been on a tear as of late and will carry it into the Eastern Conference playoffs.

LeBron James

On a position by position basis, the Cavs and Pacers both have their advantages across the board with their starting units. But when it comes to the bench, the Cavs are again the clear winner against the Pacers. The Pacers do have some good bench options in Lance Stephenson, Domantas Sabonis, and Cory Joseph, but they still do not compare to the Cavs.

The Cavs bench, bolstered by Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver, and JR Smith, is tailor-made to play alongside King James. The bench provides so much three-point scoring, athleticism, defense, and it completely overwhelms the Pacers’ reserves. Clarkson and Korver will be the biggest factors for the Cavs’ bench, as they should be able to torch the Pacers with their jump shooting. Korver alone will be huge, as he had a penchant for torching the Pacers last season:

While both teams are talented, they do need proper coaching to utilize their talent. For the Pacers, they get the advantage with head coach Nate McMillan. While Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue has won an NBA title, he has made so many questionable decisions this season to make fans weary. McMillan, on the other hand, has maximized a Pacers team that was not expected to be here, as mentioned before. He has the pulse of this team and will try and draw up a strategy to steal a game from the Cavs.

So after looking at the starting units, benches, and coaching staff, the Cavs walk away with a 5-2 advantage. The Cavs are simply a lot more talented than the Pacers and the fact that Indiana has not played the “new Cavs” is an X-Factor. Props to Indiana for winning the series 3-1, but this is a different Cavs team that is a lot more dynamic compared to earlier this season.

The Cavs should win this series in six games as Indiana does have a few serious X-factors of their own. The perimeter scoring and athleticism they carry will likely trump the Cavs when they head to Indianapolis. The Cavs will need to steal one on the road to close out this series, but the combination of talent and playoff experience will help that cause.

Cavs

Final prediction: Cavs win series 4-2

The Land