LeBron, Cavaliers sweep away Pacers' challenge

INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Cleveland Cavaliers can keep up the type of third-quarter dominance they showed throughout their first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers and apply it to the rest of the playoffs, a third straight trip to the NBA Finals seems like a foregone conclusion.

The Cavs outscored the Pacers by five in the third quarter of Sunday’s 106-102 victory to advance to the second round, closing out an Indiana team that challenged Cleveland from the very first tip-off.

All told, Cleveland outscored Indiana 124-87 in those third quarters.

The Cavs team on the floor in the third quarter of Game 4 -- a feisty defensive bunch that played with a gusto equal parts edge and enjoyment -- resembled the team that stormed through the start of the 2016 playoffs 10-0.

In the fourth quarter, Cleveland had to stave off an Indiana team that nearly erased double-digit deficits in three of the four games, only to come up short.

LeBron James’ late 3 put Cleveland ahead for good. He finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds.

"Tough team, we knew that coming into the series," James said afterward. "We locked into our scheme. Our coaching staff gave us a great game plan going into every game -- just trying to execute it."

It was a historic day for James, as the accolades continue to pile up for the 14-year veteran. The sweep was the 10th of his career, the most all time, edging Tim Duncan’s nine. It was also his 21st straight victory in a first-round game, the most in a row by any player since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984 (besting the record of 20 set by Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and James Worthy with the Los Angeles Lakers).

The rest of the league is dealing with injuries (Blake Griffin, Rudy Gobert, Rajon Rondo and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Durant) and adversity (San Antonio is tied 2-2 with Memphis, Toronto is tied 2-2 with Milwaukee, Golden State is missing coach Steve Kerr). But the defending champs got out of the first round unscathed, as quickly as possible.

Not that Indiana didn’t put a scare in the Cavs. The Pacers were a C.J. Miles midrange jump shot away from stealing Game 1 and held a 26-point second half lead in Game 3. Paul George was phenomenal. Lance Stephenson was his usual instigating self. Thaddeus Young defined hustle.

The victory assures the Cavs a full week off before they host either the upstart Bucks or familiar Raptors in the second round. For a group with the oldest roster in the playoffs, the rest is vital, but the time is also a chance to coalesce as a unit through practices, team dinners and playoff viewing parties. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue will be tasked with keeping his team’s wind -- as fatigue bogged down Cleveland’s offense late in Games 1 and 2 -- during the quasi-vacation.

While Cleveland’s warts, which were so apparent in the regular season, have not fully disappeared, several positive trends emerged in the performance against the Pacers.

Cleveland's bench grew into a reliable option, with Deron Williams flashing signs of his All-Star past, Channing Frye taking advantage of the open looks he got from the outside, Kyle Korver creating opportunities for everyone else with his floor spacing, and Iman Shumpert earning a place back in the rotation via hungry, attacking defense.

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Cleveland Cavaliers Scribbles: How LeBron James haunts opponents like Michael Jordan did -- Terry Pluto (photos, videos)

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana -- Cleveland Cavaliers Scribbles after they swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs with a 106-102 victory in Sunday's Game 4.

1. Listening to Indiana's Paul George, I thought about the Cavs of the late 1980s and early 1990s. George and the Pacers have been eliminated four times when facing a team with LeBron James. It happened three times when James was with the Miami Heat. Then add in this season. He said in a quiet voice: "It is frustrating to continue losing to the same team and same person."

2. The Cavs lost to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls four times. That's right ... FOUR! They were eliminated by Jordan in 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993. The Bulls beat the Cavs again in 1994, but Jordan was in his baseball phase that year.

3. Remember how Cavs fans feared Jordan's teams in a playoff series? That's how the Eastern Conference teams feel about any team with LeBron James. He is aiming for his seventh consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. He has won 21 consecutive games in the first round. His teams have never lost a first-round series.

4. In the sweep, James was on the court for an average of 44 minutes per game. That was more than any other player in the series. James played 45 minutes Sunday. "I felt great," said James. "I could have played the whole game if needed."

5. That's the other remarkable aspect of his career ... his durability. He has never missed a playoff game due to injury, and he's played in 202 of them. He didn't fully learn what was required to be a big winner in the playoffs until he went to Miami. The four years (and two titles) with the Heat taught him a lot about toughness and playoff leadership.

6. Meanwhile, George is a legitimate star. He averaged 28 points and 8.8 rebounds in the series. But he was worn down by Game 4. He was 5-of-21 from the field, 15 ugly points. In the fourth quarter, he was 1-of-6 for three points. He shot a 3-pointer that missed the rim and banged off the glass (wide right) with 19 seconds left. That could have tied the game for the Pacers.

7. George spent most of his time defending James. That is a demanding assignment for anyone. The Cavs used three different defenders on George: J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and James. It helped keep James fresher on offense. Indiana really didn't have anyone else who attempted to defend James. The assignment fell to George, the Pacers premier athlete.

8. James said the Cavs did a few things on defense that they hadn't done all season. My guess is it was in how they defended George in the final two games. The five-man combination of Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and James rarely played together in the regular season. But they have been the second unit in the last two playoff games.

9. Kevin Love had a terrible day shooting the ball. He was 2-of-13 from the field, 1-of-5 on 3-pointers. He also had four turnovers. To Love's credit, he pounded the boards for a game-high 16 rebounds. That is important on a day when not much else was working for him.

10. Kyrie Irving is not shooting the ball well, especially from 3-point range (7-of-32). At times, he is forcing those long jumpers. Perhaps it's his way of trying to regain his touch. This could be a major concern if it continues deeper in the playoffs. In 37 minutes, Irving shot 10-of-25 (28 points). He had only two rebounds and one steal. Zero assists. It was one of those games where he seemed to be looking to shoot nearly every time.

11. Deron Williams was superb, making all four of his shots and scoring 14 points. He has learned how to play with James. Williams shot 77 percent in the four-game series.

12. I ran into Kevin Mackey at halftime. The former Cleveland State coach is in his 14th season as a scout with the Indiana Pacers. I had to look it up, but I was surprised to discover Mackey is 70 years old.


NBA Playoffs Takeaways: Cavaliers use their brooms; OKC fumbles big opportunity

The Pacers head home, the Cavs move on, the Celtics even the score, the Bulls fall apart, ISO Joe rises, Westbrook lashes out and the Clippers clip hard. Here's what happened Sunday in the NBA playoffs ...

JOE JOHNSON. AGAIN.

This, my friends, is why your favorite team keeps that veteran on the bench.

Fans always want something shiny and new. They want the youngster to get time, they want the rookies to be on the floor, they want athleticism over experience. But Joe Johnson showed on Sunday night why you want guys like him -- guys who have been in the league for over a decade and have been in these moments before.

Johnson scored 13 points and had three assists in the final seven minutes of Game 4 while the Jazz outscored the Clippers 25-11 to even the series. Johnson was patient, in control, deliberate. When the Clippers sunk off him for a second, he drained a 3-pointer. When he was matched up with a smaller opponent, he worked them in the post. He controlled the game in a way that only veterans know how to do, and delivered time and time again.

Johnson's career has been underrated since his days in Phoenix. He has made the playoffs every year since 2008, and been a big reason why his squad qualified each year. His defense hasn't slipped. His passing is still smart. He has added old-man strength and knows how to create and maintain space when rabid defenses are primed on him.
There's no way to really define these things that make a player so good in clutch time. It's not just shot making, it's control of the game. Johnson is one of the best at it, and you're not going to find it in any young kid. If the playoffs are a man's game, then Joe Johnson is a certified adult, and the one that the Jazz needed, and had on Sunday, to tie the series.

A CAVALIER APPROACH TO THE FIRST ROUND

Ho-hum, another first-round demolition job for LeBron James, another early finish to the first round and more rest for his squad. In his wake, he leaves a Pacers team wondering if they'll still have Paul George at the start of next season, let alone next summer when he's a free agent. This isn't the first time a team has had to come to grips with tough situations following a loss to King James. Facing James and realizing how big the gap is between your team and what he brings to the table has a startling impact.

The Pacers hung in this series, the point differential was the closest for a sweep in decades. But the Cavaliers had control of this series the whole way, except for the first half of Game 3. Indiana just never had the level of execution to match up. It wasn't firepower, not this time. They had weapons, and the Cavs' defense remains vulnerable . They didn't execute.

James did. Over and over. The Cavaliers got a few contributions, Kevin Love in particular was good. But this series was about James. He averaged 33 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists on 54 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent from deep. His free-throw shooting remains bizarrely off, and yet he dominated the Pacers, including hitting the go-ahead shot in Game 4 after the Pacers came back to tie.

The Cavs haven't fixed anything, and their effort first-round won't be enough going forward. But it was enough to end the Pacers' season, and earn the defending champs some needed rest before the next round.

The Cavaliers will face the winner of the Raptors-Bucks series, and that next series won't begin until Monday, May 1, giving them a full week off.

WHEN EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

Everything went wrong for the Rockets to end Game 4 vs. the Thunder. They gave up an offensive rebound off a free throw. James Harden turned the ball over up four with 28 seconds to go. And yet ... more went wrong for the Thunder. OKC found a spectacular series of ways to lose this game. The Thunder led with 5:35 to go, a situation they had been great in the entire season. But they had three turnovers, all from Russell Westbrook, in that span.
After the Thunder managed to generate a 3-pointer off that rebound, the Thunder needed to foul. Instead, they let the ball get ahead of them, to Nene, under the rim, where they fouled him on a layup. Ballgame.

It was not the best executed finish to a ballgame.

In the end, the Thunder had the only kind of game they were going to win in these playoffs -- a close, ugly game. That's where this team lives, and they still couldn't close. That doesn't bode well for this series, much less the 3-1 deficit they face.

For the Rockets, everything went wrong. James Harden had a horrible game. They were never good in the clutch this season, and they shot 11 for 35 from 3-point range. Everything about this game screamed "Rockets loss," and they found a way to win. That's a big step for a team still finding itself. The Rockets found a way to win when nothing worked the way it's supposed to for them, and that's what great teams do.

Oklahoma City was right there, with the game they needed, and the chances they wanted. There's a good chance there will be there again. But if they find a way to miss every opportunity, their season will end Tuesday in Houston.

CELTIC ORDER RESTORED

Boston evened its series with Chicago with a Game 4 victory Sunday and has all the momentum. The Bulls are completely overwhelmed since the Rajon Rondo injury and don't have an answer for the Celtics' small-ball adjustments.

If the Celtics go on to win this series, assuming Rondo is unable to return, they will have beaten the No. 8 seed 4-2. That's not a bad end result. The fact that the Celtics were down 0-2 and looked lost will be forgotten as the playoffs move along. Is their first round a success then? Are all the things the Bulls exposed in the first two games an illusion, caused by the Celtics' emotional turmoil? Or will another team find a way to exploit the things Chicago can't now that Rondo's out?

The Bulls still found a way into Game 4, nearly pulling even in the third quarter before an Isaiah Thomas deluge. Their lack of adjustments has been atrocious. Here's what's crazy in this series, though: a game 5 victory would reverse all the trends and switch it back to the Bulls having figured out the Celtics. If the Celtics win, the first two games were nothing but a blip for the 1-seed.

This series, more than any other, shows how narratives shift with each and every game in the playoffs.

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