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Cleveland Cavaliers get a close-up of the Pacers — the team they should try to emulate

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Prior to the 2017-18 season, the Indiana Pacers’ over-under win total was set at 31.5. 

Sound familiar? It should. 

This season, the oddsmakers have the same view of the LeBron-less Cleveland Cavaliers, putting their number at 30.5.

Of course, the Pacers — who handed the Cavaliers their first loss of the preseason on Monday night and taught them plenty of lessons throughout — went on to eclipse that total, earned a trip to the playoffs and gave Cleveland a hard-fought tussle in the first round. 

Indiana overachieved with one All-Star (Victor Oladipo), a fast-paced offense that scored nearly 15 fastbreak points per night, a system that demanded a balanced offensive output and a pesky defense.

In the nicest way possible, the Pacers were a well-coached scrappy group of overachievers that simply played harder than most on a nightly basis — using the whole-is-better-than-the-sum-of-the-parts identity to overcome some obvious talent deficiencies. 

That’s the team Cleveland should be trying to emulate.

“They have a pretty good model of how we want to play this year,” Kyle Korver said early Monday morning. “Obviously Oladipo had an incredible year for them last year, but they really just played good team basketball, they competed every night and they didn’t beat themselves.

“They all know their job. They execute really well. They get back on defense. They are strong down low, with length, size and strength. Oladipo is a problem. He’s someone you have to put a whole gameplan around. They all play off each other well. They get up and down the court. They get the ball and go. Have a couple of guards that are fast. They’re a handful.”

The Pacers’ makeover came only months after losing their franchise player, a trade that was supposed to cripple the team and rip away any chance of making the postseason.

Paul George isn’t LeBron James. The latter is irreplaceable. But there are some similarities and it’s hard not to wonder if the Cavs can follow the blueprint all the way to the playoffs.

First, Cleveland has its All-Star centerpiece. Kevin Love is different than Oladipo. Love needs his teammates to keep him involved throughout the game. He will do most of his work from the elbow and the post, trying to take advantage of his unique offensive versatility. Oladipo, meanwhile, is a dynamic playmaker that can create offense in a pinch — the kind of weapon capable of attacking switches relentlessly and shifting a playoff series in this NBA era.

Still, Love — the hub of Cleveland’s offense — has pulled a team to the doorstep of the playoffs before and he’s better equipped and more seasoned now. 

Like the Pacers, the Cavs want to run, using their young bodies and rangy athletes to attack in transition. That should help the offense generate easier baskets and maybe wear down the opponent by the end of the game.

Can the Cavs get six players in double figures like Indiana? Will someone breakout unexpectedly the way Oladipo did? Those are fair questions. 

The Cavs new-look offense features plenty of movement, trying to have multiple threats and counters per possession. It’s designed for that share-the-wealth approach. It can’t be about the individual. It has to be about the team. 

Rodney Hood has averaged double figures in three of the four years since coming into the NBA. Efficiency may still be a problem for him, but Hood has spoken about his increased comfort in this system, getting back to the way he was used with Utah when he was the team’s second-leading scorer.

Jordan Clarkson remains one of the league’s most combustable bench players. Korver will have more plays called for him than the past few years, getting looks comparable to the ones he got in Atlanta. If Collin Sexton can continue to polish his jumper then he could get to that double-digit mark.

What about Larry Nance Jr. with increased minutes? He averaged a shade south of 10 points per game last season in just 20.8 minutes. George Hill hasn’t been in single digits for a full season since 2011-12.

“Once we get in sync, there are going to be more open looks than what everybody thinks,” Korver said. “But everyone has to evolve their game from last year and change our approach.”

That goes for the defense as well. 

Last season, Indiana finished tied for 12th in defensive efficiency, allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions.

Can the Cavs, who ranked 29th, match that? Tristan Thompson actually believes Cleveland can finish higher, saying the goal is to rank top 10.

“Of course, it will be baby steps,” he said recently. “You can’t just wake up in the morning and be top 10 in the league in defense. It’s going to be step by step. We can see how our defense pans out, and see what adjustments we need to make. There’s going to be steps. The sooner the better is always what we like to hear and what we want. We’ve got to trust it, trust our coach and watch a lot of film.”

The Cavs believe there are reasons for optimism. They would be the first to admit playing hard on defense didn’t happen during the regular season. Instead, they plodded their way through, just counting down the days until late April.

Transition defense was comical, developing horrible habits that were extremely hard to break. The communication was hit or miss. Laziness infected the team and with it came a lack of trust and oodles of finger-pointing. But everyone knew their lone focus was the playoffs. That’s why they often held back strategies, waiting to uncork their effective blitz until the most important time of year.

When they did that, Cleveland became, let’s say, respectable at that end of the floor.

This year, the playoffs aren’t guaranteed. Playing hard won’t be an option. It will be a necessity.

The Cavs don’t have the most talented individual defenders. Hill, who used to have that kind of reputation, has slipped lately. In the playoffs, he had an individual defensive rating of 109.1, which ranked 140th out of the 210 players that logged time. JR Smith, once considered Cleveland’s top perimeter defender, is coming off a season where he finished among the league’s worst at any position.

Osman could be important to a potential turnaround, especially after head coach Tyronn Lue said the second-year man will get the toughest assignment.

“Cedi has been one of our best defenders since he’s been here,” Lue said.

He will certainly scrap and give the non-stop effort the Cavs need on a nightly basis, but it’s hard to envision him thriving in that role against the game’s elite.

That’s why scheme, switchability, trust, communication and toughness will need to step to the forefront. Five traits that help lay the foundation for Indiana’s defensive success.

The Cavs are a week away from the start of the regular season. They are trying to create an identity and get a better understanding of the playbook. It will take time. The rotation won’t be written in pen immediately. Players won’t have all the answers. Neither will the coaches.

So who are the Cavs?

They should try to become the Pacers — an overlooked squad that exceeded expectations, even after the league left for them dead following their superstar’s departure. 

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