The 2017 NBA playoffs will tip off with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers hosting the Indiana Pacers on Saturday afternoon, and there's plenty more intrigue involved than one usually finds when the second-seeded champs take on a seventh-seeded, 42-win team.
Much of that intrigue, of course, surrounds the Cavs, who stumbled to the finish line with an 11-15 record over their final 26 games, and a pedestrian .500 record (23-23) over the last three months of the season, coughing up the East's top seed in the process.
Here's what to keep an eye on:
Can the Cavs rediscover their defense?
The 2017 Cavs are far from the first championship-caliber team that simply went through the motions during the regular season after a couple of deep postseason runs, but Cleveland's drop-off felt especially stunning, particularly on the defensive end.
The Cavs finished the season with the league's 22nd-ranked defense overall - the lowest mark ever by a LeBron James-led team - and the 29th-ranked D post-All-Star break. Those types of numbers can't simply be tied to regular-season boredom.
An unstable rotation due to injuries and rest didn't help, nor did the midseason acquisition of offense-first players like Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, but it's tough to see a team among the absolute worst on the defensive end magically morphing into a stingy bunch overnight.
The Pacers had a middling offense all year, they don't launch nearly enough 3-pointers for a team that finished fourth in 3-point percentage, and they don't have the type of presence on the offensive glass to consistently generate second-chance opportunities, so if Indiana starts lighting it up in this series, you'll know Cleveland truly has no remedy for what ails the team.
The LeBron factor
As vulnerable as the Cavs have looked this season, the sobering reality for all Eastern Conference challengers remains the presence of James, whose on-court impact is still a marvel of the modern game.
Despite logging nearly 50,000 career minutes between the regular season and playoffs, and carrying his teams to six consecutive NBA Finals, James logged a league-leading 37.8 minutes per game in 74 appearances during his age-32 season, without looking any worse for wear.
He averaged career highs in rebounds and assists while scoring 26.4 points per game on the back of his third-best shooting season (59.4 eFG%), and even during the Cavs' aforementioned 11-15 finish, Cleveland still outscored opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions when LeBron was on the court. Only the Warriors and Spurs posted better net ratings.
LBJ vs. PG IV
This marks the fourth time in six years that James will take on Paul George and the Pacers at some point during the postseason, and if prior battles are any indication, this series will give us one helluva 1-on-1 battle.
Just two weeks ago, the star forwards combined for 85 points, 25 rebounds, and 20 assists in a double-overtime thriller, while George played some of the best ball of his career down the stretch of the season, averaging 30.8 points on 52-43-81 shooting over his final 12 games to drag the Pacers to the playoffs.
It will take that kind of a Herculean effort from George - and significant contributions from the likes of Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Teague, and co. (the latter of which will have to exploit Kyrie Irving's defensive deficiencies) - for the Pacers to have any hope of upsetting the Cavs, but if nothing else, expect George and James to put on a show.
|Cavaliers vs. Pacers||Date||Location||Time||Network|
|Game 1||Apr. 15||Cleveland||3 p.m.||ABC|
|Game 2||Apr. 17||Cleveland||7 p.m.||TNT|
|Game 3||Apr. 20||Indiana||7 p.m.||TNT|
|Game 4||Apr. 23||Indiana||1 p.m.||ABC|
|Game 5*||Apr. 25||Cleveland||TBD||TBD|
|Game 6*||Apr. 27||Indiana||TBD||TBD|
|Game 7*||Apr. 29||Cleveland||TBD||TNT|