NBA Playoffs Preview: Cavaliers vs. Pacers

Can Paul George and the Pacers take advantage of a vulnerable Cavaliers defense? Or will the reigning champs coast by?

If you knew prior to the season that the Cleveland Cavaliers would face the Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, you'd probably be thinking it was because the Pacers clung to the 8 seed.

Of course, that's not the case, and Indiana has secured the Eastern Conference's 7 seed for the second straight season. Last year, they pushed the Toronto Raptors to seven games in the opening round after stealing Game 1 in Toronto.

Can the Pacers hang with the Cavaliers this year?

Let's dig into the numbers, including what our nERD metric and algorithms have to say about the opening series.

Cleveland Cavaliers (2)

Record: 51-31
nERD: 59.0
Championship Odds: 6.6%

Indiana Pacers (7)

Record: 42-40
nERD: 49.3
Championship Odds: 1.0%

Regular Season Series - Cavaliers 3, Pacers 1

The Cavs took three of the four. The lone Pacers' win came back on November 16, a 103-93 win in Indiana. The Pacers posted an effective field goal percentage of 55.8% in that one. For context, only the Golden State Warriors (56.3%) were better on the year.

Indiana averaged an effective field goal percentage of 51.6% on the season, and the Cavs shot just 47.1% by this measure in this game, down from a second-in-the-league mark of 54.7% on the year.

And now that the lede has been completely buried, LeBron James didn't dress in that game after the Cavaliers had taken down Toronto 121-117 the night prior in Cleveland.

On February 8, Cleveland won Game 2 by a score of 132-117. It was their third game in a four-game road trip, but the team shot 64.3% in terms of effective field goal percentage and posted an offensive rating of 135.6. Indiana shot 57.9% and had an offensive rating of 120.2.

A week later, Cleveland defeated Indiana 113-104 at home after playing the Timberwolves in Minnesota the night prior. This was part of a Pacers' low-point, as this was their fifth straight loss in what would be a six-game losing streak overall.

The losses, though, came at the hands of the Cavaliers (home and road), the Washington Wizards (road and home), the Milwaukee Bucks, and the San Antonio Spurs (both at home).

The final tilt, on April 2, resulted in a 135-130 Cleveland win in double-overtime. The Pacers had lost three games prior (to Minnesota at home, to Memphis on the road, and the Raptors on the road).

How the Cavaliers Can Win

If the Cavaliers shore up their defense at all, they should be able to take care of business rather easily. Their defensive rating, as measured by Basketball-Reference, was 110.3. That graded out 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse than the NBA average.

Only the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers won it all in a year with a defensive rating worse than the NBA average during the regular season. Those Lakers were 1.8 points worse than the average team during the regular season, but in the postseason, they were 6.6 points better than the playoff average, lending some credence to the "turn it on in the playoff" narrative.

Further in Cleveland's favor, the Pacers ranked exactly league average in defensive rating (108.8), so Cleveland's offense (113.6 points per possession, third-best) should be enough to roll in this matchup.

Cavaliers Player to Watch - Kevin Love

The obvious choice here was James, as the Cavaliers are 8.5 points per 100 possessions worse than opponents without him on the court this season and 7.7 points per 100 better than opponents with him on the court. It'll be telling to see how hard he goes early on, too.

Other than the best player in the world (we can still say that, even if he's not the MVP), Kevin Love should be in the spotlight. With Love on the floor, the Cavs have a 113.2 offensive rating and a 106.0 defensive rating, per That 7.2-point swing is nearly the same as James' 7.7.

The reason Love is interesting (aside from his offense) is that the Pacers are a unique offense.

Just 24.0% of their attempts come from within three feet of the rim. That ranks 29th in the league (the league average is 29.0%). However, 27.2% of their attempts are three-pointers, 26th-highest in the league. That means a lot of mid-range attempts rather than shots at the rim. Defending the rim isn't Love's strength, as he allows a conversion rate of 65.7% from within six feet, 4.3 points higher than the average of the players he defended.

Indy also sits 25th in offensive rebounding rate, and the Cavs grab 76.9% of defensive boards with Love on the floor. Cleaning the glass will mitigate some of Cleveland's defensive issues, and that makes Love (and Tristan Thompson, too, of course) keys to this series.

How the Pacers Can Win

If they can get this version of Paul George back, maybe they can press the Cavs.

Sorry, Heat fans. Or sorry, Cavs fans. I'm not sure which it is at this point.

Anyway, the Pacers clearly have their work cut out for them. They score 108.6 points per 100 possessions and allow 108.8, according to Basketball-Reference, so they're almost exactly average on both sides of the ball.

However, what they have going for them is recent form. Since that fourth and final game in the regular season series, the Pacers have been hot. Per's measures, the Pacers have a 116.0 offensive rating and a 102.5 defensive rating in five games since that loss, giving them the third-best net rating (13.5) in the league in that span. The offense sits second, and the defense is eighth.

Conversely, the Cavaliers are 11th offensively (109.1), 16th defensively (106.9), and 10th overall (2.2).

Spanning back to the All-Star break (27 games for Cleveland and 25 for Indiana), the Pacers have outplayed the Cavs by net rating.

Post All-Star Break ORtg
Rank DRtg Rank Net Rtg
Rank Pace Rank
Indiana 107.8 12 106.0 15 1.8 12 96.1 23
Cleveland 110.6 6 111.1 29 -0.5 17 96.8 22

Take that as you will, of course. The Cavs have been on another level with taking it easy and not even pushing for the 1 seed, but the fact that both teams are playing slow basketball (and did in the four prior matchups) could lend itself to some close games.

The whole seven-game-series angle eradicates the volatility issues with slower-paced games, but it's possible the Pacers steal a game or two and put the pressure on Cleveland.

Pacers Player to Watch - Paul George

Who else would it be? Lance Stephenson? Well, his impact could sway some things, perhaps. The Pacers are 8.5 points better with Stephenson on the floor in 132 minutes, but if the Pacers are going to win more than a game or two, it's going to be because of Paul George.

Just check these splits.

Indiana PacersOffensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating
Paul George On108.9106.02.9
Paul George Off100.5107.0-6.5

George doesn't have a huge impact on the defense (though it is a point better per 100 possessions). The offense is where the real change is.

And -- if you look past the analytics (gasp) -- we already know that George can go toe-to-toe with James, at least for a game or two. In the playoffs, sometimes it comes down to getting the ball into the hands of your best player, and few teams can feel as confident in their star as the Pacers can in George.

Series Prediction

Going against the defending champions when they have a roster similar to the one that earned a title is always a tough draw. After all, the Cavs were pretty weak defensively last season for a championship team, so that quells some of the concern on their end, and most teams take a step back defensively after winning a title (since 1979-80, anyway).

Of course, Cavaliers are far from invincible, but the Pacers might need to swap some mid-range attempts for threes to hang with Cleveland's hyper-efficient offense. Indiana does rank fourth in three-point field goal percentage, after all.

According to our algorithms: Cavaliers are 65.11% favorites.

My final prediction: Cavaliers in 5.