CLEVELAND, Ohio — During an at-times tumultuous season, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense has been treated like a pinata — by both opposing teams and media members trying to identify the root of the season-long issue.
But after the Cavaliers watched a large fourth-quarter lead evaporate, needing a few clutch plays in the final minute to get by the hard-charging Indiana Pacers, head coach Tyronn Lue defended the much-maligned defense and pointed the finger elsewhere.
“It’s our offense,” Lue said following the 117-111 win. “I think we get tired at times. It’s playoffs, guys are playing a lot of minutes and they’re competing. And we don’t push the ball every single possession when we get a chance.”
The Cavs scored 21 points in the fourth period, going 7-of-18 from the field and 1-of-6 from 3-point range. They also committed four turnovers.
Lue might be on to something about fatigue. LeBron James played 23 of the 24 second-half minutes Monday night. Kevin Love played 21 of 24. Kyrie Irving sat for just four minutes, going back into the game around the eight-minute mark after the Pacers trimmed a one-time 19-point lead to 11.
The shot selection shows something similar. Instead of attacking the paint, the Cavs started settling for more jumpers and going with isolation attacks, as 10 of the 18 shots were outside the paint. Cleveland had just two assists in the period.
In two fourth quarters against Indiana, the Cavs have been outscored, 57-38.
Their offensive rating overall this postseason is 119.6, which is third best. However in the final period it drops to a pedestrian 90.1, which ranks 12th out of 16 teams. On Monday, the fourth-quarter offense had a rating of 89.3.
“Not so much the iso because we have good players who can do that. It’s our turnovers,” Lue said. “We’ve got to take care of the basketball. When we turn the basketball over, we can’t get back and it hurts us. We have to do a good job of taking good shots and taking care of the basketball. That’s what hurt our defense was our offense tonight.”
But it’s sort of basketball’s chicken-or-egg debate. Is the offense great because the defense is getting stops and allowing the Cavs to push the pace? Or is the defense locked in because shots are falling and there’s more gusto on the other end? Either way, the two sides of the floor seem to be connected.
In the third quarter of Game 2, it looked like Cleveland’s flowing offense correlated to a better defensive effort.
With Kevin Love taking advantage of Indiana’s small-ball lineup, plowing through his defender in the paint and earning repeated trips to the free-throw line, the Cavs scored 33 points on 11-of-18 from the field.
It’s where they won the game, outscoring the Pacers in the period, 33-20, and playing with more intensity on the defensive end as a result.
“Think we were just a little bit early on a lot of their sets,” James said. “Shump (Iman Shumpert) came in and gave us some more aggressiveness on the ball with PG (Paul George) and our bigs, Tristan (Thompson) and Kev did a great job of rotating and putting two on the ball and myself and Ky on the back side we just tried to read and react. We were moving, we were flying around and we were communicating on coverages and allowed us to have that third.”
The Pacers, dealing with persistent traps against George to get the ball out of his hands, had their lowest-scoring quarter of the series, going 7-of-18 from the floor, including 1-of-5 from beyond the arc. They also had six costly miscues that the Cavs turned into nine points.
“He had 18 the first half,” Lue said of the strategy against George. “When he shoots that thing he’s going to make it every single time. That third quarter we were able to turn our defense up, trapping him, scrambling, rotating.”
According to Lue, the Cavs’ poor offense didn’t allow for the same kind of defensive success in the fourth quarter. The Pacers scored 33 points on 13-of-22 from the field and forced a few tense moments inside Quicken Loans Arena.
“It’s you guys writing us off that this game is going to be easy for the Cavs,” George said. “We take away some of these easy baskets we’re giving up, and these games might be a little different. Every point in the game we know we’ve got a chance to come back. Even when we’re down big. We know we’ve got an opportunity to clamp down and make baskets and get ourselves back in the game.”
For the second straight game, the Pacers did. But James brushed off any concern about protecting big leads. It’s the playoffs. Only the end result matters. The Cavs hold a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series heading to Indiana for Game 3 on Thursday night.
“I’d much rather have an 18-point lead than not have a lead at all,” James said. “And we make plays down the stretch to win a ball game in the postseason, that’s all you can ask for.
“And if we can follow that game plan for as close to 48 minutes as possible, then nine times out of 10 we can be successful.”
That’s the next step in the Cavs’ process, finding a way to play a complete game. It might be coming. But it will require being much better in the fourth quarter.