There was no switch flipped.
The Cavaliers’ defense, which has been unimpressive through the final stretch of the season, lived down to that billing — Indiana scored 108 points, shot 45.8 percent from three, had a ridiculous offensive rating of 118.9 points per 100 possessions, and with the game on the line were able to create quality looks.
The Cavaliers are now up 1-0 in the first round series, with Game 2 on Monday in Cleveland.
The Pacers should go into that game with confidence that they can hang with Cleveland.
The difference on Saturday the Cavaliers had LeBron James, who scored 32 points on 20 shots, plus had 13 assists, leading an efficient offense that got the shots it wanted against a Pacers defense that had taken a big step back this season. Kyrie Irving added 23 points but on 27 shots. Take Irving out of the mix and the Cavaliers shot 60.8 percent for the game, and they were that hot through the first half (61 percent, including Irving).
The problem for Cleveland was it couldn’t get regular stops, George was making plays — he finished with 29 points — and that Cavs defense allowed the Pacers to hang around. LeBron seemed more pleased with the Cleveland defense than he should have been.
“I thought the effort and energy was there, but we’ve still got some Xs and Os to clean up,” LeBron said after the game.
The Cavaliers has started to pull away in the early parts of the fourth quarter, and it looked like they might coast to a comfortable win, but Indiana responded with an 11-0 run that had the Pacers up two, 105-103, with 3:30 left. Then LeBron answered with an emphatic dunk to tie it, and the Cavaliers were able to pull away a little. Then a beautiful Paul George three, followed by a stop, set up the chance for the Pacers to win it.
On the bright side for Indiana was the play of Lance Stephenson, who had 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists on the game. He showed up when it was time to play LeBron.
Indiana needs to make Cleveland work harder for its buckets. This struggle was more expected, the Pacers defense suffered this season. Part of that was a coaching change from the more defensively focused Frank Vogel to Nate McMillan, but part of it was personnel — when the Pacers were an elite defense they had a good defender in George Hill at the one, now there is Jeff Teague and it’s a step back at a critical position. And that’s just one example. In this game, Kyrie Irving was pumped when he saw Aaron Brooks lined up to try to stop him.
Whichever team cleans up its defense more will have the upper hand on Monday in Game 2.