First round may prove valuable if Cavs push personal interests aside

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James in action during the second half in Game 4 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Sunday, April 23, 2017, in Indianapolis. Cleveland defeated Indiana 106-102 and won the series 4-0. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Combined ShapeCaption
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James in action during the second half in Game 4 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Sunday, April 23, 2017, in Indianapolis. Cleveland defeated Indiana 106-102 and won the series 4-0. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

J.R Smith may not have been digging deep enough when he said the Cavaliers got nothing out of their sweep of the Indiana Pacers.

Others saw areas of growth in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coach Tyronn Lue and LeBron James cited defensive improvements. The Cavs may have continued their penchant for blowing fourth-quarter leads, but they showed poise and toughness to prevail as mcthe clock wound down. They handled a team that was hot, having won five consecutive games to qualify for the postseason, had a superstar in Paul George and a dangerous supporting cast, albeit one not as talented as theirs.

But what Smith overlooked was how the Cavs pushed their egos aside.

Kyrie Irving recognized what happened. And while he saw the same gaffes and sub-par level of play that bothered Smith, Irving thought what happened internally may have been more important.

For the past month, Irving's primary concern has not been strategy, it has been chemistry. As the team's resident psychologist, or at least its most willing to discuss off-the-court issues, Irving saw some barriers to the Cavs' success fall, barriers that may have more to do with their chances of repeating as NBA champions than anything that happened on the hardwood against the Pacers.

"It was just a lot of mistakes, but a lot of things we got to cover up for just based on effort, big plays made by some special players as well as guys coming off the bench. Everybody played huge," Irving said last week. "For us to have that, sustain that type of energy and be able to play nine, 10 guys, and everyone still be comfortable and everyone still be able to play no matter whose number is called, that's the true growth of a team.

"A lot of egos can get in the way, a lot of things could get in the way of a team being successful as a team. Us putting our individual sacrifices to the side and the only thing that matters is us winning and advancing, as long as that's first, we'll always be in a good place."

Those words would not have carried as much weight if not for the worries expressed by Irving after a March 29 practice at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Irving said then that "everyone has kind of gone their own way." He thought his teammates had gotten comfortable after winning the NBA title. Irving said the Cavs had to get back to "having fun with one another and being truthful with one another."

Presumably what Irving saw in the Pacers' series that may help to allay those fears came in Game 3, when the Cavs trailed by 25 at halftime and mounted the largest second-half rally in NBA postseason history to win by five.

In the fourth quarter of that game, Lue benched Irving and Kevin Love, both struggling through unproductive nights. They cheered enthusiastically as James, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert pulled off the stunning comeback.

So when Irving talked about egos, he was talking about his own as well.

It's not just that the Cavs had over $38.7 million in salary for this season on the sideline as Irving and Love watched and screamed and jumped and high-fived. The aforementioned second unit also played a huge chunk in the second quarter of Game 4. Richard Jefferson, who averaged over 23 minutes last year in the NBA Finals, saw no action in the closeout victory over the Pacers and got in for only 3:38 in Game 3.

Already there have been personal sacrifices for the Cavs and the playoffs are merely four games old.

Those sacrifices will do more for the Cavs' bond than team dinners on the road, than gatherings at players' homes, than inside jokes that might not stay inside forever if social media maven Jefferson has anything to do with it.

The Pacers series may mean more to the Cavs than just four victories. If the Cavs do capture another title and look for a turning point, Game 3 against the Pacers might be it.

But it may not take on that designation because of James' 15 points in the fourth quarter, Frye's huge 3 or Williams' clinching free throws. It may instead be the game when internal walls fell, when pride was shoved aside, when amidst the fun and revelry on the bench the sense of team overtook sense of self.

About the Author