It would be an understatement to argue that LeBron James isn’t used to losing a match in the first round of the playoffs. Heading into yesterday’s curtain-raiser against the Pacers, he had won his last 21 outings and 48 of 55 overall. And there was even more reason for fans to expect the same old, same old from the King: He had yet to suffer a setback in 12 Game One opening-series appearances. As far as oddsmakers were concerned, the Cavaliers were heavy favorites for a reason: him.
Unfortunately for James, the 2017-2018 campaign isn’t like any other in his career. For all the confidence pundits had in the Cavaliers owing to his mere presence, there were enough factors in play for doubt to set in. Among others, an evident lack of cohesion on court coverages owing to injuries and personnel turnover stood out; they stumbled through the regular season next to last in defensive efficiency, a position that underscored the difficulties that lay with their bid to claim a fourth straight Finals berth. And against the Pacers, who had beaten them thrice in four previous meetings, it was particularly worrisome.
True enough, the Cavaliers found themselves shellacked in their initial playoff homestand. Outplayed and outhustled from the get-go, they didn’t so much as get a taste of the lead en route to an 18-point drubbing. And even though they managed to mount a couple of second-half rallies from 23 behind, their glaring inability to consistently make stops told on the outcome. Pressed to rely on defense to get them back in the game in light of their poor shooting, they predictably failed to summon the requisite effort.
Significantly, James stayed even-keeled in the aftermath of the setback, noting that if the Cavaliers could come back from a one-three deficit with the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line, a zero-one slate to start the playoffs isn’t cause for concern. They’ll do much better in Game Two, he contended, and he may well be right. There’s just one problem, though: The current roster is nowhere near as formed — as united, even — as that which managed to go all the way in 2016.
Of course, James is James, and if only for the constancy of his excellence, the Cavaliers cannot be written off. The numbers don’t lie, though; based on advanced stats, they’ll have to shoot lights out every time they burn rubber. Otherwise, they end up taxing their decidedly porous defense, to unfavorable results.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.