Well, that was interesting. Last night the Cavaliers certainly flipped a switch. Whether it was the switch or not remains to be seen. But before we get to the game itself, let's cover a couple things I was wrong about (and at least one I was right about) yesterday.
First and foremost, JR Smith wound up overcoming his hamstring injury and starting for the Cavs, which is a good thing because Iman Shumpert was pretty much awful in the thirteen minutes he did play. Shump had a role in the Cavs second-half strangling of the Pacers, but it was a small one, and he committed 4 fouls in 13 minutes which is, well, that's something that you expect from an uncoordinated 7-footer who just came back from a foot injury or something, not the sort of thing a "wing stopper" ought to be doing. So, sorry JR for doubting you, the team is not better when you are hurt, I am quite chagrined to have said that. For penance I will not wear a shirt today,
Second, I think it will be some time before I next allege that LBJ, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are "an excellent rebounding frontcourt." Love particularly is supposed to be an elite rebounder but he just isn't doing anything to deserve that reputation right now. He's slow to box out, seems to be mistiming his jumps, and just generally seems to lack the nastiness that is required to be an elite rebounder in the NBA. TT is awesome, and James is elite at basically everything when matched up against a 3 (he struggles to rebound against much taller men but that's pretty much how basketball works), but Love is trash at the moment. Not sure what's going on.
Then the one thing I got right; the Cavs finally benched Richard Jefferson (he played only three minutes and did nothing) and hopefully that is a sign of things to come. Shump's got to get it together though or we'll probably see RJeff back in the lineup as at least he isn't committing 46 fouls per game or whatever Shump is averaging right now.
So, what happened exactly? Well, in the first half the Cavs were worse than ever on defense. They really looked lost and got embarrassed on several plays where the ball would swing to a guy who nobody was even pretending to guard. Some of those were three-point looks for Lance Stephenson, who is a bad three point shooter, so maybe you can live with those, but even a bad three-point shooter is going to make a useful percentage of shots when he's completely wide open with no one guarding him at all. Even I can make those shots from time to time and I'm one of the worst shooters who has ever laced up a basketball shoe.
So the Cavs gave up 74 points in the first half (that's bad!) and looked to be headed to a lopsided Game 3 loss and a couple nights of soul-searching before they came out in the second half and just absolutely demolished the Pacers with a strangling defense that was even better than the score would indicate (they gave up only 40 points in the second half) because the Pacers caught some lucky bounces that turned into offensive rebounds and other extra possessions.
What changed? Unfortunately I don't yet have the complete video of the game to review so I can't really say. One thing that happened in the fourth quarter is that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love didn't play, but they played almost the entire third quarter when the D was even better than the fourth so, who the hell knows? The narrative about the Cavs is that they only play well when they feel desperate, and while I am always wary of such narratives (usually these things are the result of statistical variability and not these psychological factors as we are so fond of assuming) I must admit the Cavs looked like a completely different team after halftime.
Maybe Lebron was right and they were just a half away from "flipping the switch" and finally playing some defense.
One thing that hasn't changed is that the Cavs crater when Lebron sits down. He's only sat for 11 minutes in this entire series so this number has a lot of noise in it, but in those 11 minutes the Pacers have scored at a rate of 152 points per 100 possessions, which is a number so outrageous that it's impossible to even contextualize. It is indistinguishable from not playing defense at all. It's All-Star Game level defense.
The only thing that's saved the Cavs is that they've actually scored at a pretty nice clip in those 11 minutes, so Jordan help them if the scrubs start missing shots.
The big looming issue for the Cavs, besides why Kevin Love doesn't seem to be able to rebound at his normal elite level, is what is going on with Kyrie Irving's shot. As we discussed yesterday, Irving is a bad defender most of the time and while he's a decent passer for a point guard and has great finishing ability around the rim, he's really not an NBA starter-quality player without his deadly three-point shooting. In the past two finals runs he's averaged a little over 44% shooting from deep which is a high enough number that he bends the defense and commands huge respect from opposing coaches when they are picking matchups, deciding swtiches, etc.
Right now in this series Kyrie is averaging 24% shooting from three, which is so far below a useful level that Irving, the Cavs' second scoring option, has actually recorded a negative Value Over Replacement Player in his first three games against the Pacers. That means that replacing Kyrie with a random warm body off the trash heap would have helped the Cavs in this series.
Quite simply. the Cavs cannot win the title unless Kyrie is playing at an elite level, and right now he is playing at a sub-replacement level. The Pacers aren't good enough to take advantage of that, but the Bucks (currently up 2-1 in their series with Toronto) certainly are, and it's possible to imagine Irving having trouble getting minutes in that series since he might be too small to guard any Buck except Dellevadova.
Three point shooting is notoriously high-variance, but 6-for-25 is a pretty severe slump. Look for Kyrie to get it going in Game 4 or for questions to start surfacing about whether Tyronne Lue might need to get creative with his Round 2 lineups to give the Cavs the best chance to advance.