The Cleveland Cavaliers defended home court in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers, as their “Big Three” of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love combined to score 89 points in the 117-111 victory.
Irving led the way with 37 (11 of which came in the fourth quarter).
Love scored 27 on only seven field goal attempts, going a perfect 12-for-12 at the free throw line.
James scored 25 with 10 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and four blocks.
For Irving and James, that type of performance is not quite out of the ordinary. However, the Pacers’ attempt to play small ball with the Cavs in the third quarter may have backfired, as Love found himself with mismatches on Lance Stephenson and took advantage of the opportunity, going right at the 6-foot-5 guard repeatedly.
“Sometimes when you’re matching up to them and you’re going small, their small lineup is better than your small lineup, so you have to be careful with that,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said after the game.
That matchup problem proved to be a turning point of the game.
Love scored 10 points in the third quarter, six of which came at the free throw line, and appeared to frustrate Stephenson the more it went on.
Throughout Love’s tenure with the Cavs, he has been known for getting involved in the offense early in games, particularly in the first quarter, but has a habit of seeming to fade out of games in terms of scoring. Typically, Love will get the majority of his points early on and Irving and James will carry most of the weight later in games.
But in this case, it was a combination of the opponent’s scheme and Love being more assertive on his part.
“Kyrie always tells me do your job,” Love said after the game.
“That’s your job,” Irving interrupted him at the podium.
“Lance Stephenson is on you, you punch him,”
Love did just that and McMillan may have regretted the gameplan afterwards.
“We were trying to cool off Kyrie,” the coach said.
“Kyrie had a big quarter and we went to a matchup trying to cool him off. I think we put Paul George on Kyrie and Lance moved to Love. They did a good job of recognizing that matchup, which they do. They go at matchups and do a good job of recognizing matchups and taking advantage of that matchup. I thought that was huge.”
Opposing players and coaches often describe guarding the Cavs as a case of “pick your poison” and in this case, Cleveland’s third star happened to be that poison.
Love also provided a spark on defense, sacrifcing his body to draw charges to give his team and the crowd a boost of energy.
Similar to how Irving stepped up his defense late in Game 1, the increased effort on that end was another example of how everything is amplified for the Cavs now that the Playoffs are underway.
LeBron still managed to deliver his usual brilliance, but the Cavs went from owning an 18-point lead late in the third quarter to just a five-point game with less than three minutes to play in regulation.
It’s been a habit all season for the Cavs, who did a better job of maintaining a comfortable lead most of the night in Game 2 than some of their recent performances, but LeBron recognized his team still has work to do in that regard.
“We have a chance to do something that we’ve all been wanting to do all season,” James said.
“That’s to put together a four quarter game and I think we’re right on the cusp of doing that.”
It sounds simple. The Cavs have one of the most talented rosters the NBA has ever seen. What’s so hard about putting together a four quarter game?
That question has plagued the Cavaliers for some time now, especially going back to January and March.
Although the team doesn’t always finish off the job as comfortably as fans would hope, through two playoff games, the Cavs are off to a 2-0 start.
If LeBron’s words about being “right there” and “close to the team that we all know we can become,” turn out to be true, opponents might be in for a rude awakening should Cleveland start to click on all cylinders.
We’ve seen flashes of it already in these first two games and Indiana has struggled to deal with Cleveland’s versatility on offense.
The Cavs and Pacers each have a few days off to prepare for Game 3 in Indiana. George and company look to defend home court and earn at least one more trip back to Cleveland, while the Cavs hope to get even closer to the level LeBron believes his team can reach.