Marla Ridenour: As Cavs see progress in Pacers’ series, J.R. Smith provides voice of reason
LeBron James was in a jovial mood, singing and rapping to the music coming through his headphones as he sat through his postgame icing routine.
The Cavaliers were pleased they’d completed a four-game sweep of the Indiana Pacers Sunday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse because it ensured a week off before their second-round series against the Bucks-Raptors winner begins at home on May 1.
They insisted they made progress, especially defensively, although the statistics don’t support that. They seemed undaunted by their penchant to lose fourth-quarter leads. Even James’ 58 percent shooting at the free-throw line could be temporarily forgotten as the four-time MVP led the largest halftime comeback in league postseason history in Game 3, then set an NBA record with his 21st consecutive first-round playoff victory in Game 4.
But not everyone in the locker room was riding high. J.R. Smith offered the most realistic view of where the Cavs stand, although his mood may have been tempered by his near-fatal behind-the-back pass with 7.9 seconds left in a 106-102 victory.
Asked what the Cavs proved in the first round, Smith said, “Nothing, other than we get out of the first round, I guess. That’s about it.”
Smith never played in more than six postseason games in five of his first six years in the league with the Nuggets and Knicks, so he doesn’t take any playoff victory for granted. But he said his sense of accomplishment in that is “dwindling a little bit.”
“You see where you’re supposed to be, what type of basketball you’re supposed to be playing with the guys you’ve got,” Smith said. “We just expect more. At this point, just another notch in the belt.”
In my view, Smith had his finger on the Cavs’ pulse better than most who spoke Sunday.
It’s hard for me to swallow that Kyrie Irving played “great,” as coach Tyronn Lue said, after Irving connected on 5-of-9 field goals in the third quarter and 5-of-16 in the other three periods. Irving reverted to iso ball in the fourth quarter and went 1-of-7 as the Pacers took a two-point lead with 1:31 remaining after trailing by 13 with 9:29 to go.
It’s hard for me to see the same improvement Lue and James saw when the Cavs are tied for 12th out of 16 teams in defensive efficiency (111 points per 100 possessions) going into Monday night’s action. The Pacers shot 46.6 percent from the field, higher than the 45.8 the Cavs allowed during the regular season, when their defensive efficiency tied for 22nd (108).
“Defensively I thought we took a step forward,” Lue said. “And that’s all I wanted to see. I know we can score. Getting the stops is most important. All these games came down to the wire and when we needed to get stops, we got stops.”
The Cavs’ total margin of 16 points in the four victories tied the smallest in a four-game sweep in NBA postseason history, according to ESPN Stats and Information, matched by the Golden State Warriors in the 1975 Finals against the Washington Bullets.
“We did some things defensively that we haven’t done all year,” James said. “It challenged our minds; it challenged our bodies. Any time you go against a guy like Paul George you gotta have your antennas up. We knew going into this series they had the coach of the month and the player of the month. We knew C.J. Miles killed us in the regular season. We knew a lot of their other guys played well against us. You try to take things away and make things more difficult on them. We got better in round one and that’s a plus for us.”
Then there was the issue of the fourth-quarter leads. There were more examples than Sunday, when the Cavs went without a point for 5:54 as the Pacers clawed back. In Game 2, the Cavs saw an 18-point lead to start the final 12 minutes cut to four. In Game 1, the Pacers went ahead by two after trailing by 10 with 11:44 left.
Again, Smith provided the voice of reason for what has been going wrong.
“We get in a funky rhythm, we stop attacking, we start playing the clock, I guess,” he said. “We can’t do that. We’ve got to be a team that plays the same way all the time as far as energy and effort.”
James liked the Cavs’ composure in those situations, and there is much to be said for that. Close calls against the Pacers may prime them for more daunting challenges down the road.
But this is no time for delusions of grandeur, even though James’ individual performance – averaging 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9 assists in four games – might invite such notions.
James Jones, who has been to six consecutive Finals with James, knows what the defending champions are chasing and sounded optimistic about what’s ahead.
“We’re chasing to win and to be able to look at the film the next day and say we did everything to our utmost capabilities,” Jones said. “We’re not there yet. Probably never will be; there is no such thing as a perfect game. But this team, with these guys who are so competitive, we’re going to continue to chase it.”
ABOUT THE WRITER Marla Ridenour is a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal.