USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt discusses what’s next for Cleveland, which is moving on to the second round of the postseason, and Indiana, which heads into the offseason with plenty of uncertainty.
USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS — The Cleveland Cavaliers still have issues to resolve if they’re going to win a second consecutive NBA championship.
Not all questions surrounding Cleveland disappeared just because the second-seeded Cavaliers swept the seventh-seeded Pacers, ending their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series with a 106-102 victory in Game 4 on Sunday.
They addressed some and need to answer more, but the vulnerability that shrouded Cleveland in the final weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs isn’t as palpable. Victories have a way of overshadowing flaws.
“We challenged our minds, (and) we challenged our bodies,” said Cavaliers star LeBron James who has won 21 consecutive first-round games and is 12-0 in first-round series. “We got better in round one, and that’s a plus for us.”
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Look around these NBA playoffs. Vulnerability is everywhere. The Cavs, who won’t start their conference semifinals against either Milwaukee or Toronto until, May 1, aren’t alone.
Golden State is nursing injuries to key players, including All-Star Kevin Durant, who sat out the past two games, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed Game 3 because of illness. He’s out for Game 4 as well. The 61-win San Antonio Spurs are tied at 2-2
The Boston Celtics are in a struggle with the Chicago Bulls, and the Toronto-Milwaukee series is going at least six games. The Washington Wizards were roasted by Atlanta in Game 3, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz are without Blake Griffin and Rudy Gobert.
The only team in the East to sweep? The Cavaliers. The only other team that can? The Warriors.
The extra week should help the Cavs heading into the next round. They’ll have time to address defense and other issues through practice and video.
Of course, it helps to have James on your team. Against Indiana, James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two blocks, and he shot 54.3% from the field and 45% on three-pointers.
“Just going out and being aggressive, putting myself and my teammates in a position to be successful offensively and defensively, and it worked well for us,” James said.
James followed up his mesmerizing Game 3 performance with 33 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks in the series finale, and his three-pointer with 1:08 was the game-winner.
A James-led team has eliminated the Pacers from the playoffs in four of the past six postseasons.
“It’s really frustrating to continue losing to the same team or same person,” Paul George said. “It’s really frustrating. … Ultimately, it’s who I’m always going to see and face.”
The Cavs proved they could win a series without great performances from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Though Irving scored 28 points in Game 4, including 16 in the third quarter, he didn’t have a great shooting series, and Love was 2-for-13 from the field on Sunday. Love’s scoring wasn’t necessary, but his 16 rebounds were.
It’s easier to absorb mediocre offensive performances from some starters when Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert contribute off the bench. In another encouraging sign, Williams, who had 14 points in Game 4, has discovered a comfort level after initially struggling when the Cavaliers acquired him in late February.
“When we first got him, he hadn’t played in three, four weeks with Dallas because he was hurt,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “When he came to us, he was out of game shape. Now, he’s in better shape. Today, without him, we wouldn’t have won that game. He was spectacular.”
Without getting into details, James said, “We did some things defensively in this series that we haven’t done all year.”
After the Pacers took a 102-100 lead with 1:31 remaining, Cleveland allowed just one shot attempt, a brick from George, and forced two Pacers turnovers.
After the game, George was asked about his future with the Pacers.
“I’m not even at that point yet,” he said. “Next question.”
Is it imperative the Cavs improve defensively? Yes. Can they do a better job protecting leads? Yes. Is this a step in the right direction in what could be another long postseason for Cleveland? Yes.
“We’ve always been pretty calm no matter if we’re in the lead or down,” James said. “We’re a very resilient team, just even-keeled. We took another step forward in that in this series. … No matter what was going on, we just kept working forward and executing and we got stops. That’s what it boils down to.”
Whether it’s flipping the switch or rising to the occasion, the Cavaliers believe they can improve their performance when necessary.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.