CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer perfect in the preseason.
After back-to-back drubbings of the Boston Celtics, the Cavs were on the receiving end against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, losing to last year’s fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, 111-102.
Let’s call it an early reality check. During the most important stretch — the first three quarters, when most of Indiana’s regulars were playing — the Cavs lost by 14 points (81-67).
Earlier in the day, members of the team talked at length about what they wanted to accomplish in the final two tuneups before the regular season opener, hoping to build on a pair of quality defensive performances and sharpen the movement principles in this new offense. They also wanted to continue to push the pace, something head coach Tyronn Lue has been preaching since the start of training camp.
There was very little of that against Indiana.
“You don’t mind the turnovers if they are aggressive turnovers. That’s going to happen until we get familiar with each other and how we want to play,” Lue said. “But something we talked about yesterday showing film of was our shot selection. I think we have to have better shot selection and make one more pass and get to the next slip-out or next pick and roll and then create your shot. We have to continue to keep getting better with that.”
Playing shorthanded, the Cavs showed depth will likely be an issue this season and consistency may be as well, as they were unable to build on the previous two showings.
“I thought our defense was a little more solid in the second half,” Kyle Korver said. “But I don’t think either half was great. It’s the preseason, but we didn’t play as well as we did in the first couple of games.”
Monday’s film will give them plenty to work on, lessons on what not to do, before Opening Night in Toronto.
No options on offense
The Cavaliers played without both Kevin Love (foot soreness) and Rodney Hood (ankle soreness) — the top two scoring options. Not having that duo along with Jordan Clarkson (rest) and starting small forward Cedi Osman, who departed the game early because of soreness in his ankle, the Cavs had few answers against the smothering Pacers defense.
“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.”
Sam Dekker, starting in Love’s spot for the second straight game, tallied 10 points. But it was an inefficient shooting night overall (3-of-12 from the field and 1-of-5 from 3-point range). George Hill, who has gotten off to a slow start, also reached double figures (10 points) against his old team. But like Dekker, those points didn’t come easy.
Not even Collin Sexton was immune to the team-wide slog. The rookie who dazzled in his first two preseason games had his welcome-to-the-NBA night against the Pacers’ aggressive backcourt of Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo.
“It was good for him having a chance to play against a guy like Collison,” Lue said. “He’s been a very underrated player in our league for a while. Defensively he’s good and offensively he’s a smart player.”
Sexton scored just three points on 1-of-7 from the field and 0-of-2 from beyond the arc. He struggled to finish around the rim with the Pacers’ length and athleticism and when he couldn’t get into the paint off the dribble, Sexton watched jumpers repeatedly clang off the rim.
The Cavs had some success running Korver off screens to get him open looks. The sharpshooter popped off the bench and tallied 17 points on 6-of-10 from the field, including 4-of-7 from long distance. It was a window into the kind of motion the Cavs are striving for this season.
John Holland, one of a pair of Cavaliers on a two-way contract, tried shooting Cleveland back into the game late in the fourth quarter, acquitting himself well with 13 points, including a trio of long-range bombs.
The Cavs hope to use a quicker pace to get easier baskets. Operating against a tough halfcourt defense like Indiana will be a challenge — no matter who is in the lineup. On Monday night, the Cavs failed to race out in transition, tallying just three fastbreak points.
The Cavs’ defense looked a lot like it did during last year’s regular season, which is not a compliment. Cleveland ranked 29th in defensive efficiency a year ago, failing to give the requisite effort.
On Monday night, the Pacers shot 48.9 percent from the field. They finished with 16 fastbreak points.
“I thought our transition defense, which I thought was really good in both games against Boston and really getting back and communicating well, thought we took a step back on that tonight,” Korver said. “That’s kind of the starting point for a defense is getting back and getting matched up. Gave them a bunch of layups and fouls and walk-up 3s. Then we got out of sync on offense.”
Osman is expected to get the toughest defensive assignment this season, taking over that role from JR Smith. The second-year man was eager for a matchup with Oladipo. But it never materialized. Indiana played with such a rapid pace and there were so many crossmatches and switches that Osman spent time guarding everyone.
No matter who tried taking that challenge against Oladipo, he had few problems. The Pacers All-Star tallied a game-high 23 points on 6-of-10 from the field in 28 minutes. He blew by his defender with relative ease, scoring around the basket and hitting all eight of his free throws. When he had the chance, he stepped into 3s with confidence, draining three of his five attempts.
Behind Korver, Tristan Thompson and a few others fighting to make the roster, the Cavs went on a 7-0 run early in the fourth quarter to cut the Indiana lead to single digits. The group did it the way the Cavs need to this season: hustle, ball movement, sharing the wealth on offense and hard-nosed defense.
That same group made the final score look a lot better than the Cavs played.
The Cavs wrap up the preseason on Friday night against the Detroit Pistons. Considered a home game for the Cavs, the game will actually be played on the campus of Michigan State.