The Cleveland Cavaliers lost four straight to get to this moment.
The Indiana Pacers? They won five in a row to land here.
And yet, momentum aside, it’s the Cavaliers who still seem to be the overwhelming favorite in this Eastern Conference first-round playoff series between No. 2 Cleveland and No. 7 Indiana.
Because, LeBron James.
“We have a good chance to win it all,” James said, with the series set to begin on Saturday for Game 1 in Cleveland. “But it starts with baby steps first and we understand that. It starts with our opponent in two days. We have to be very determined, but we also have to be very smart about our game plan and how we execute that game plan, execute that (for as close to) 48 minutes as possible starting with Game 1.”
The Cavaliers are the defending NBA champs and they, of course, have James, who is trying to lead his team to a seventh consecutive NBA Finals. That hasn’t happened since the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics’ teams from 50 years ago.
And it was these Cavs, with mostly the same players, who became the first team in NBA history to erase a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals when they beat the Warriors in June.
So if there is one team that could flip a switch come playoff time, it would be the Cavaliers (51-31).
But, boy, have they been bad lately.
Not only did Cleveland lose four straight to finish the season and complete its fall from a four-game lead on Boston for first place on March 1, but the Cavs also went 10-14 since then and 23-23 over the last 46 games. Injuries to J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver during that stretch hurt, there’s no question. But they’ve been questionable defensively all season (20th in scoring defense overall, 29th since the All-Star break).
James’ teams have never lost a first-round series and have, in fact, won the last 17 games in the opening round. But the Cavs have work to do.
“For me, I know y’all count it as a lost season, but we won 50 games,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re second seed. It’s not like we’re eighth seed and we needed a team to win last night to back into the playoffs. I mean, (darn), what do you want? So, with all the injuries, and all the things we’ve been through, and new pieces, I feel good.”
The Pacers (42-40) have a history with James in the playoffs. They were bounced from the conference finals in 2013 and 2014 by James’ Miami Heat teams. Indiana has a new coach in Nate McMillan and Pacer mainstays George Hill and Roy Hibbert are gone from those teams, but Paul George remains.
Also, in late March, Indiana brought back into the fold Lance Stephenson, who infamously once blew in James’ ear during a playoff series to try to rattle the game’s brightest star.
“We’ve got to go out and challenge them,” George said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “It’s going to be tough. They’ve been struggling of late, but they’re still one of the best teams in this game and have one of the best players in the world. It’s going to be a fun matchup. I’m looking forward to it. If you ask me, it’s who I’ve wanted to match up against.”
Had the Pacers lost Wednesday, they would’ve missed the playoffs. Both the Bulls and Heat won, which would’ve created a three-way tie at the bottom of the East bracket, and both clubs held the tiebreaker over Indiana.
“We had an uphill climb,” McMillan said, according to the Star. “This team was built to get to the playoffs. I think we’re playing good basketball and I think we can play better.”
The Cavs took the season series from the Pacers, 3-1. On April 2, the two engaged in an epic 135-130 double-overtime win for Cleveland. James recorded a triple double and scored 41, while George carried his team in the two overtimes and finished with 43 points.
“We’re ready for this,” George said. “We’re playing great basketball right now. Everybody has a clear understanding of what needs to be done and individually what they need to do. I love the playoffs. I love playing on the biggest stage, and it’ll be great going up against LeBron again.”