CLEVELAND — Tyronn Lue sat at the podium following his Cavaliers' Game 2 100-97 win over the Indiana Pacers and smirked when asked about his team's success early in the night. After losing Game 1 because of ice-cold shooting married with poor transition defense, Lue switched up the Cavaliers starting lineup by surrounding LeBron James with four shooters—a decision that would bear immediate fruit.
"We wanted to set a tone," said Lue of his team's early play. "We ran the same play until they stopped it. [LeBron] kept getting what he wanted. We followed his lead from there."
That play? A simple floor-spacing isolation that provided James with multiple three-point options awaiting a pass but open shots in the event Pacers head coach Nate McMillan opted not to double-team him early.
James' "getting what he wanted" was a barrage of fadeaway jump shots, a three-pointer and a pair of layups that netted the Cavaliers a 33-18 lead in the first quarter. Twenty of James' game-high 46 points came in the game's first 12 minutes, and the Pacers didn’t hit their first field goal until the 6:48 mark of the quarter.
For all of James' career accomplishments, this was just the second 20-point quarter on his playoff resume. For perspective: In his infamous Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons, in a game in which he scored 29 of the Cavaliers' last 30 points, James' fourth-quarter tally stood at 11 points.
On Wednesday night against the Pacers, James benefited from the Pacers' need to play closer to the three-point line, as well as a quicker early pace, resulting in a much more aggressive tone from James than in Game 1, when he did not attempt a shot until 1:24 left in the first quarter, his team down 18.
"Basically, they put shooters out on the perimeter and LeBron was going to put his head down and go to the basket," McMillan said of his team's early efforts. "We didn't do a good job tonight of keeping the ball in front of us."
Still, despite the hot start, Cleveland found itself a missed Victor Oladipo three-pointer away from seeing the game tied in the last 30 seconds as the Cavs were outscored in each of the final three quarters. Only two players not named LeBron James finished in double figures as a host of role players once again struggled.
The Cavs head to Indiana for Game 3 with the series tied, a new, confirmed starting five and the best player in the world on their roster, but has the ship been righted?
What went right for Cleveland?
Though meeting with the media roughly two hours before Wednesday's tipoff, Lue did not unveil his starting lineup until the required deadline before the start of the contest. One part gamesmanship, the other part suspense, the final product was a small-ball lineup featuring a frontcourt of James and Cavs All-Star forward Kevin Love that was afforded ample floor space thanks to the trio of George Hill, JR Smith and Kyle Korver, the latter two replacing Jeff Green and Rodney Hood, who struggled in Game 1.
On Tuesday, the veteran shooters gave Lue a variety of new looks. Korver benefited from slip screens and over-rotations by the Pacers defense. Smith hit just one of his three field-goal attempts through three quarters but did most of his work on the defensive side for a team that struggled in transition one game earlier. When the Cavaliers needed it most, it was Smith who stripped Oladipo in the open floor with just three minutes to go, putting the Cavs up seven with a layup in transition.
"I thought JR was great defensively," Lue said of his starting guard's efforts. "I thought he really challenged [Oladipo], picking him up full court, being physical with him, denying the basketball, and at the end of the game having a big steal and going down and laying the basketball up. JR's defensive aggression was really good for us to start the game."
"JR and Kyle were huge late in the game," James added. "… Kyle getting switched off to Thaddeus [Young] one possession where it could have went either way with the push-off of a block, and comes back one-on-one against Myles Turner and was able to get the strip late in the game. They were huge defensively and we definitely needed that from them."
Also of help were the three fouls called on Oladipo in the first half, limiting him to 28 minutes for the game, and the Pacers' less-than-stellar three-point shooting, which saw them hit only six of 22 attempts in Game 2.
"They made their adjustments and they came out with the first punch," Oladipo said after the game. "We gave ourselves a chance to tie the game, but we came up short. We have to watch the film and learn from it, and take the changes we need to make for Game 3."
What needs to change for Cleveland to regain its swagger?
While the Cavaliers defense has raised eyebrows, holding the Pacers under 100 points in both first-round contests, this is still a team built around scoring. Through the up-and-down 2017-18 regular season, the Cavaliers were the league's fifth-most efficient offense. Through the first two games of the postseason, they're 15th out of 16 playoff teams, bettering only the Minnesota Timberwolves on a per-100-possession basis.
The five-man lineup deployed to start Game 2 produced a 63.3 net rating in 16 minutes. Things get murky beyond that small sample size, however, as the team's next four five-man lineups had a negative impact.
Love has started the series shooting 8-for-24, missing five uncontested looks in Game 1 and six more in Game 2 (and reports of his suffering a partially torn left thumb ligament late in Game 2 probably won't help). Green followed up his 0-of-7 Game 1 shooting with a 1-of-3 Game 2. Jordan Clarkson, one of the more reliable, high-volume scoring options for the Cavaliers reserve unit following his midseason trade to Cleveland, is 3-of-10 in two games, missing five uncontested attempts.
When asked about the sustainability of Wednesday night's success, Lue offered a succinct response.
"I need to see more out of a lot of guys," he said.
Signs of hope?
When the Cavaliers acquired Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Hill and Hood before the trade deadline, they acquired a host of players with little to no playoff experience. Hill and Hood combined to shoot 2-of-7 from three in Game 1, Nance took just one shot in Game 2 and Clarkson's struggles are well-documented. With the new starting five, however, the Cavaliers have surrounded one of the most gifted passers in the history of the game with three players who have had sustained success next to him, as well as a secondary ball-handler.
"I think it's just familiarity," James said of the new lineup after Game 2. "You've got four guys who have played in postseason games before. You add Hill, who has his own experience as well. That allows [Jeff Green] and Rodney to get settled into the game before their number was called. It worked well for us tonight."
The Cavaliers won a championship with Smith as their starting shooting guard, a player who has earned the trust of Lue over the last two-plus seasons. Behind the scenes, Lue has spent much of this season wanting to use Korver as a floor-spacing wing in the playoffs, marking a substantial deviation from his regular-season usage, which was abbreviated as a result of a late-season foot injury in addition to the time he needed to be with his family after the loss of his brother. Following Game 1, however, Lue sent a text to Korver asking if he was up for the task, and the challenge was indeed met.
"With Kyle out there looking to get me open, and vice versa, LeBron playing downhill really set the tone tonight," Love told Bleacher Report of the new-look starting rotation. It really worked for us ... Kyle's a really smart player and looks for that stuff. Playing in transition he runs to find his man, and if they're overplaying him, he'll set a screen for you. You just have to knock it down."
The Cavs will now head to Indiana for a two-game set and a guaranteed Game 5 back in Cleveland. It's unwise to doubt James, but even the best can't go it alone. While many will long for the days of the Cavaliers Big Three, they could benefit the most from someone—anyone—emerging to help as a reliable second option.
Two games into the postseason, however, Cleveland is still waiting for someone to take on that role.
All statistics via NBA.com.