Cleveland Cavaliers 105, Indiana Pacers 95
On paper, the Pacers are not supposed to beat the Cavs. But last night, inside my TV set, they almost did. And they probably should have.
Once again a winnable game was lost, primary because an inept offense could not score when the team needed points. Down 91-88 with 5:40 to play, Indiana spent most of the final minutes missing difficult shots and failing to convert open jumpers. Unlike other dry spells the team has gone through this season, the ball did move around the perimeter freely and there was penetration into the lane. It just didn’t result in points.
LeBron, meanwhile, spent the late minutes rediscovering the spark that allowed him to start off the game shooting 8/8 and putting up 20 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds in the first half. (He finished with 40 points on 13/25 with 9 boards, 7 assists and just 2 turnovers.) Despite LeBron’s best efforts, however, the defense gave the team a chance to win.
As has become the norm, the highlight of the late minutes came on the defensive end, when Danny Granger thwarted a sure bucket from JJ Hickson. LeBron destroyed the entire team defense with dribble penetration fromthe perimeter and got into the middle of the paint, where multiple defenders were forced to merge into his path to prevent a sure dunk. LeBron stopped short and found a wide-open, cutting JJ Hickson for what appeared to be an uncontested dunk. Not to Danny. He raised up and swatted the athletic big man’s flush attempt and the Pacers looked charged to capitalize on the momentum and crowd energy of Granger’s big block with some points.
Instead, an Anthony Parker baseline jumper on the Cavs next possession would soon extend Indy’s deficit, and although a Troy Muphy jumper would allow the Pacers to, well, keep pace, a stunning, spinning drive by LeBron would extend the Cleveland lead to six. (He may have traveled by dragging the foot on his sweeping spin move, but they for some reason never showed a replay.)
Despite falling down even further, another nice defensive play by Granger — this time, he impressively ripped the ball directly out of LeBron’s giant hands — would continue to keep the Pacers hopes alive. But, again, a big defensive play wasn’t even enough to get Danny’s — or anyone else’s — scoring going. Usually, it isn’t uncommon to see a struggling shooter make a defensive play and translate that momentum into points. Didn’t happen.
Danny’s good D continued soon after as he forced LeBron into another tough fadeaway from the elbow area, but when he received the ball on a kick out towards the end of the next possession down, Granger chose to pump-fake, take a dribble left, and pull-up for the long two-pointer instead of just shooting the three right after the catch, which is a much more efficient shot statistically and one that he looked like he could have released without too much difficulty. Perhaps, ironically, it was a decision that looked all too much like the decision-making that has characterized Brandon Rush’s offensive struggles throughout much of the the year — this, on a night where Brandon Rush was one of the offense’s highlights, scoring 16 points on 10 shots and even putting up 3 assists while generally looking comfortable and making good passes around the perimeter.
With the Cavs up six and only a minute to go, it would be up to the defense to keep any chances that the Pacers had remaining alive. And Dahntay Jones looked up to the task. LeBron commanded the ball back on the other end, dribbling above the top of the key in front on Dahntay, who had been taking the lion-share of a tandem look against LeBron all night along with Granger and looked to relish this final challenge. He stayed low in his stance and dug in, waiting for the best player in the world to take it to him.
Instead, LeBron dribbled until the shot clock got low and quickly rose up for a 26-foot, straitaway jumper. Nothing but twine. Cleveland up 7 with 0:52 to play. Ball game.
The outcome was the one that Pacers fans should have expected. A middling-at-best squad isn’t supposed to beat a championship contender, even on its home floor and probably particularly when their head coach gets sent to the showers midway through the first quarter after picking up two technical fouls for sticking up for his point guard. But even though the Cavs defense is good and even though LeBron did some unstoppable LeBron stuff late, Danny made not just a couple of big defensive plays late that should have led to more points. But the offense just was not capable of getting buckets late, which is a shame, because during a 15-0 third quarter run and through a first quarter where the team put up 38 points on 682% shooting (15/22 shooting), the offense looked potent. It looked well-oiled. It looked explosive.
Then the team scored 13 fourth quarter points. On 22% shooting. (4/18 from the field)
With Murphy back, Rush proving that he hasn’t completely flatlined, Dahntay looking more and more like his production might be more than a fluke and Roy Hibbert unlikely to put up too many more complete no-shows like he did last night (4 points on 2/4 shooting, 2 boards, 0 blocks in 16 foul-riddled minutes), there is hope that better scoring days are ahead.
Based upon the first ten games of the season, honestly, it is starting to feel unlikely that the team will ever become truly reliably offensive unit. But if the defense can continue to be as close to as good as it has been early, and the offense can continue improving towards becoming at least a middle-of-the-pack NBA squad, then this .500 record can definitely hold.
Until then, let’s just chalk this one up to an elite team beating one that surely isn’t.