Cleveland Cavaliers driving fans crazy while somehow winning -- Terry Pluto (photos, video)

INDIANAPOLIS -- They passed the test.

I write that about the Cleveland Cavaliers while admitting that this series -- and this season -- has me ready for the basketball bughouse.

Final score: Cavaliers 106, Indiana Pacers 102. Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Cavaliers stalled, sputtered and stumbled ... yet still swept through the first round of the playoffs.

ESPN reported the Cavs average margin of victory was 4.0 points...that tied the smallest margin of victory in a 4-game sweep in NBA history.

Now repeat after me: WINNING IS WHAT COUNTS.

I say that while reaching for the aspirin.

I say that because the Cavs played four games against the Pacers, and won them all.

I say that knowing they could have lost three of those games.

But they didn't. That's what counts. Four games played, four in the win column. First round over.

Playoff games are a pass/fail test. No style points. In the final 91 seconds of the game, the Cavs came from behind and outscored Indiana, 6-0.

As Indiana coach Mate McMillian said after the game, when the Cavs need to make big shots, make serious defensive stands and game-winning plays ... that's exactly what they did.

LeBron James has won his 21st consecutive first-round playoff games. It was another brilliant performance for No. 23.
  • 33 points
  • 10 rebounds
  • 4 assists

James knows what is necessary to take out a lesser opponent in a close-out game.

Let's not take James for granted. Ever since he came back, we truly can watch a player who is one of the best ever. He shows it in the playoffs. Now, the Cavs will rest for at least a week while Milwaukee and Toronto push, shove and throw elbows in their series. It's tied, 2-2.

The Cavs were a little lucky. No doubt. But they also played some very determined defense on Pacers star Paul George, who finished with 15 ugly points on 5-of-21 shooting.

Take a bow Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and James. They took turns defending George. I know, Smith threw a bizarre behind-the-back pass near the end of the game that could have been disaster. But it wasn't.

I know Kevin Love shot a miserable 2-of-13 for five rim-bending points. But he also had a game-high 16 rebounds.

I know that in Game 1 of the series, the Cavs were an embarrassing 14-of-27 from the foul line and nearly lost. But on this Sunday, they were 23-of-27 ... and needed all those points.

I know Deron Williams is emerging as a star off the bench. He scored 14 points, making all four of his field-goal attempts.

I know Kyrie Irving causes me to wince with some of his shot selections and incessant dribbling, but he grabbed a key rebound in the final minutes.

I know the Cavs have to play better than this, but I also see the defense improving. In the last two games, the Cavs have held the Pacers to 40 and 50 points in the second half -- when they got serious about defense.

It's very positive to see Tristan Thompson, James and Love combine for 37 rebounds. The entire Indiana team only had 42.

I know it's a long way to The Finals. I know the Cavs will have to play better than they did against the Pacers to get through the Eastern Conference.

But I also know the first round is over. The Cavs won. And that's what counts the most this time of year.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James drives past Indiana Pacers forward Paul George on his way to two points. April 23, 2017. (Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer)



Cavaliers show championship mettle that remains biggest strength in playoff chess match

INDIANAPOLIS -- The third quarter couldn't have started much better for the Indiana Pacers. With 24 minutes remaining in the game -- and possibly their season -- the Pacers needed a strong start to avoid being swept for the first time ever.

Running defensive liability Kyrie Irving through a series of high pick-and-rolls with point guard Jeff Teague as the orchestrator, the Pacers outplayed the Cavs for the first three-plus minutes, showing the same heart and determination that led to their five-game winning streak to get into the playoffs.

But then Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue moved one of his pieces. He put LeBron James on Teague and "hid" Irving on CJ Miles.

Welcome to the postseason -- the ultimate chess match.

"Just a change to give them a different look," Lue said. "I thought Teague was very comfortable in the pick-and-roll. Just putting LeBron on him, a bigger guy, more physical. And with Tristan (Thompson) we can switch and Bron on Myles Turner is not a mismatch. It worked. They went away from it."

That one move by Lue helps highlight the primary difference between the Cavs and Pacers in the most recent four-game sweep. Sure, it helps to have the pieces. Lue is playing with kings, queens and rooks. The Pacers, the seventh seed for numerous reasons, are stuck with pawns and knights.

But this is the time of year where experience is so vital and adjustments often flip a series or game. It's about discipline and smarts. It's about mental fortitude, showing the ability to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable moments.

"We did some things defensively that we haven't done all year," James said following Sunday's win. "It challenged our minds. It challenged our bodies. Any time you go against a guy like Paul George you've got to have your antennas up. We knew going into this series in the month of April they had the Coach of the Month and the Player of the Month. They were playing good basketball and he was playing good basketball individually. We got better in round one and that's a plus for us."

In the early third quarter, Indiana's pick-and-roll was shredding Cleveland's already-suspect defense. It's the same issue the Cavs have had all season. It starts with Irving. Once Teague got into the paint, he was able to score on his own or create open looks for teammates.

But Lue's in-game tweak took that away. Teague wasn't nearly as comfortable trying to attack the longer, more athletic and intimidating James so the Pacers abandoned what had been working and their offense disintegrated, watching a close game morph into a Cavs' double-digit edge before the Pacers could figure out what to do.

There were other matchups to exploit given that Cavs strategy. Only the Pacers couldn't identify them. They looked panicked. In the playoffs, every possession counts. It's the repeated empty trips that teams often regret following the game.

The Cavs' 13-4 surge in that stretch helped build a big enough cushion to ultimately hold off another Indiana rally.

"Every game has different challenges," James said. "Just like tonight. Tonight was a different challenge than Game 3. We found a way to win."

It's not always pretty. The Cavs still have gobs of issues to fix, especially on defense, where they remain one of the worst in the postseason. Apparently they're still looking for the proverbial switch. The Cavs' margin in the four wins was just 16 points, matching the smallest total in a four-game sweep in NBA history.

Still, the champs know how to win close games late this time of year, an invaluable trait that the Pacers, Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Wizards and even Hawks are lacking.

The Cavs have been in these positions before. There's experience they can draw back on. They've hit the big shots. They've made the right plays. They've overcome adversity. They've been able to handle prosperity. And, of course, it helps to have Irving, a late-game assassin, and James, who delivered a huge 3-pointer with 1:07 left in the fourth quarter Sunday.

"I got the switch on Myles Turner and they just had to show me something where I felt like I could get my shot off," James said. "Once I seen his hands drop, I knew I had the shot."

The story of the series.

In Game 1, as the opener came down to the final possession, the Cavs sent two defenders at Paul George and the Pacers looked uncomfortable in the closing seconds. Miles got a good look, but George's frustration after not getting the final shot boiled over to the podium after. I

In Game 2, the Pacers stormed back from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter and cut the lead to six points, only to commit a costly miscue that didn't allow them to get a shot.

On Thursday night, the Cavs finished on a 16-10 run over the final five minutes.

Then came Indiana's deja vu moment on Sunday after James' dagger. Less than a minute to go. Indiana down by one. Thaddeus Young got the ball after the Cavs pressured George and then had it ripped away by James. The next possession ended with another turnover, a baffling play by Teague, before George got one last heave, an airball.

Another close game. A few chances for the Pacers. They came up empty again. Another close win for the Cavs, with late-game execution the difference.

The Pacers are still learning how to win in these moments. The Cavs already possess the priceless know-how.

"We've always been pretty calm no matter if we lose a lead or if we're down, we're a very resilient team," James said. "We kinda just stay even keel.

"We took another step forward tonight in this series. We lost a couple leads at home in this series. We were getting smacked around in Game 3 for a while, kept our composure and got back into the game. Won the game. Tonight we had another lead no matter what was going on, we just kept our composure and executed and we got stops. That's what it boils down to. Make the plays when they need to happen and we did that."

Following the game, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith were both asked what they learned in this series. Neither had an answer. Truth is there wasn't a lot.

Cavs-Pacers was simply a reminder of the immense mountain any other East foe will have to climb to dethrone the champs. Not only do the Cavs have the better pieces -- a veteran-laden roster that has thrived in the biggest moments and is built for the postseason -- but they also hold the mental edge.

"First chance to see how we perform under the microscope. For us it was really a test of our physical and mental endurance," James Jones told cleveland.com. "It's difficult. It's a see-saw battle. But mentally I think this team is tougher. We're stronger in those moments which allows us to flush our past situations and move on to the next play and really stay in the moment and win games."

The Cavs have become experts in the playoff chess match. Even with their flaws, it was checkmate early once again for the opponent.


Cavs address defense, take 'step forward' in sweep over Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS — The Cleveland Cavaliers still have issues to resolve if they’re going to win a second consecutive NBA championship.

Not all questions surrounding Cleveland disappeared just because the second-seeded Cavaliers swept the seventh-seeded Pacers, ending their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series with a 106-102 victory in Game 4 on Sunday.

They addressed some and need to answer more, but the vulnerability that shrouded Cleveland in the final weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs isn’t as palpable. Victories have a way of overshadowing flaws.

"We challenged our minds, (and) we challenged our bodies,” said Cavaliers star LeBron James who has won 21 consecutive first-round games and is 12-0 in first-round series. “We got better in round one, and that’s a plus for us.”

Look around these NBA playoffs. Vulnerability is everywhere. The Cavs, who won’t start their conference semifinals against either Milwaukee or Toronto until, May 1, aren’t alone.

Golden State is nursing injuries to key players, including All-Star Kevin Durant, who sat out the past two games, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed Game 3 because of illness. He's out for Game 4 as well. The 61-win San Antonio Spurs are tied at 2-2

The Boston Celtics are in a struggle with the Chicago Bulls, and the Toronto-Milwaukee series is going at least six games. The Washington Wizards were roasted by Atlanta in Game 3, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz are without Blake Griffin and Rudy Gobert.

The only team in the East to sweep? The Cavaliers. The only other team that can? The Warriors.

The extra week should help the Cavs heading into the next round. They'll have time to address defense and other issues through practice and video.

Of course, it helps to have James on your team. Against Indiana, James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks, and he shot 54.3% from the field and 45% on three-pointers.

“Just going out and being aggressive, putting myself and my teammates in a position to be successful offensively and defensively, and it worked well for us,” James said.

James followed up his mesmerizing Game 3 performance with 33 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks in the series finale, and his three-pointer with 1:08 was the game-winner.

A James-led team has eliminated the Pacers from the playoffs in four of the past six postseasons.

“It’s really frustrating to continue losing to the same team or same person,” Paul George said. “It’s really frustrating. … Ultimately, it’s who I’m always going to see and face.”

The Cavs proved they could win a series without great performances from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Though Irving scored 28 points in Game 4, including 16 in the third quarter, he didn’t have a great shooting series, and Love was 2-for-13 from the field on Sunday. Love's scoring wasn’t necessary, but his 16 rebounds were.

It’s easier to absorb mediocre offensive performances from some starters when Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert contribute off the bench. In another encouraging sign, Williams, who had 14 points in Game 4, has discovered a comfort level after initially struggling when the Cavaliers acquired him in late February.

“When we first got him, he hadn’t played in three, four weeks with Dallas because he was hurt,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “When he came to us, he was out of game shape. Now, he’s in better shape. Today, without him, we wouldn’t have won that game. He was spectacular.”

Without getting into details, James said, “We did some things defensively in this series that we haven’t done all year.”

After the Pacers took a 102-100 lead with 1:31 remaining, Cleveland allowed just one shot attempt, a brick from George, and forced two Pacers turnovers.

After the game, George was asked about his future with the Pacers.

"I'm not even at that point yet," he said. "Next question."

Is it imperative the Cavs improve defensively? Yes. Can they do a better job protecting leads? Yes. Is this a step in the right direction in what could be another long postseason for Cleveland? Yes.

“We’ve always been pretty calm no matter if we’re in the lead or down,” James said. “We’re a very resilient team, just even-keeled. We took another step forward in that in this series. … No matter what was going on, we just kept working forward and executing and we got stops. That’s what it boils down to.”

Whether it’s flipping the switch or rising to the occasion, the Cavaliers believe they can improve their performance when necessary.

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