KRAVITZ: Vulnerable Cavs are as beatable as any team that's ever been blessed by LeBron’s presence

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) is defended by Indiana Pacers' Lance Stephenson during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Bob Kravitz

CLEVELAND (WTHR) - Several years ago, Colts kicker and resident genius Mike Vanderjagt went on TV the week before the Colts AFC Championship Game at New England and suggested the Patriots were “ripe for the picking.’’ The Patriots then went out and crushed the Colts and moved on to the Super Bowl.

Fast forward to 2018, and I’m going to play the role of Vanderjagt, even if I’m more of a liquored-up writer than a liquored-up kicker: The Cavaliers are ripe for the picking.

That’s right, I said it.

They are vulnerable, as vulnerable as any LeBron James team has been since 2007 and likely ever will be – assuming that if he bolts Cleveland, he’ll join one of the young-and-coming super teams.

Let’s start with the basics:

Cleveland won 50 games this season and did so with James playing all 82 games and playing at an otherworldly level – even by his lofty standards.

Indiana won 48 games, would have won 49 if they’d played all their starters in the meaningless season finale, and were 0-6 without Victor Oladipo.

I understand the fact the Cavs have LeBron, have the championship pedigree, have James and Kevin Love and some other players with experience winning the title. I understand the playoffs require a different level of play, and James’ teams have ascended to that level in seven straight playoff seasons, having reached the Finals all seven times. But they don’t have Kyrie Irving, having foolishly dealt him to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, who lasted a minute in Cleveland and then was dealt to LA. (If I can find owner Dan Gilbert, the man who criticized the Pacers for not getting enough in the Paul George trade, I’ll ask him how he did in the Irving trade.)

Instead of Irving, the Pacers will have to deal with George Hill, who is a fine player and a true professional, but isn’t in the same area code as Irving in terms of having an impact.

And there’s this: The Cavaliers don’t, and maybe can’t, play defense. The numbers are across-the-board horrendous. Even a year ago, during a sweep of the Pacers that was determined by a total of 16 points, the Cavaliers had few answers defensively for an Indiana team that snuck into the playoffs and had only George as a true game-changing asset. This year, the Cavs are even worse.

The question is, how much more are the overachieving Pacers capable of giving? What’s their ceiling? I don’t know because we haven’t seen Oladipo or Bojan Bogdanovic or Darren Collison in this situation with any frequency.

Oladipo had one thing exactly right the other day. When it was mentioned that the Pacers are 3-1 against the Cavs this year, he interrupted the questioner and said, “It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter.’’

The playoffs are a different beast altogether. Now teams can focus on one opponent and make necessary adjustments between games. Weaknesses are more readily exposed, and let’s face it, James doesn’t have any such weaknesses. There are no Jordan Rules for James. Just stay in front of him, take away the freight-train straight-line drives and pray he doesn’t pick you apart with his immense passing abilities.

Understand, we’re not saying that James himself is vulnerable. If the Cavs had finished with a better record and a higher standing in the Eastern Conference, he would have beaten out James Harden as the league’s likely MVP. The guy’s in his 15th season at age 33, and he’s better than he’s ever been. He’s scored more points than Harden, grabbed more rebounds, handed out more assists, shot significantly better from the field and from three, played more minutes, played more games and had 18 triple doubles to Harden’s four. Since Feb. 7, James has been averaging 30.2 points per game, 9.9 rebounds and 10.2 assists.

And he’s done it while carrying a team that has been a year-long soap opera - "As the the Land Turns," coach Tyronn Lue called it - hoisting this group on his shoulders and taking it to a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers will start Bogdanovic on him, and surprisingly, Bogdanovic has done a decent job on James. Nate McMillan will also try Thaddeus Young and Lance Stephenson, with the hope the latter will do nothing silly and end up poking the bear. It wouldn't even shock me, if things got desperate, to see a little bit of Glenn Robinson III a time or two.

Who else besides James and, to a lesser extent, Love scares you?

Jeff Green is a solid pro, but nothing special. Tristan Thompson has a history of pushing Myles Turner around, but he’s not starting these days and has garnered most of his headlines off the court – motorboating? Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance, Jr. are all nice young pieces, but they haven’t done it in the playoffs. J.R. Smith is as mercurial as ever, a deadeye shooter one game and a cipher the next. Kyle Korver does what he does, but if you can run him off the 3-point line – no easy task with James driving and kicking to shooters – he can be negated.

“It all depends on which Cavs teams show up,’’ James said after the Cavaliers’ season finale against the Knicks.

Which doesn’t sound to me like, “Yeah, we’re absolutely ready and feel good about making another deep run.’’

Look, only a fool or a homer would pick the Pacers to win this series. We all know James hasn’t lost a first-round game since 2012. But I’ve got a weirdly hopeful feeling about this match-up. Just as the Pacers made the most of the George trade, having ultimately fleeced the Thunder (and who could have seen that coming?), I see them making the most of this opportunity. They desperately wanted national TV exposure, something they received just one time all season, and now they’re going to get it. They want to show that this largely anonymous team from flyover country is capable of making noise against the best player in the world and his team.

“It’s time we get the respect we deserve,’’ Thad Young was saying the other day.

No. It’s time they go out and grab the respect they believe they deserve.

Shock the World.

That’s what Oladipo was saying before the season finale as he gave a short Fan Appreciation Night speech.

I think the Pacers are capable, and if everything falls perfectly, they have a shot at what the public will view as a massive upset.

Gun to head, I’ll say Cavaliers in seven close and challenging games, but if Indiana wins – and it’s more than just a little bit possible – I’ll happily find my passport and make my way for the second round in Toronto. They have a shot. No question, they have a shot.

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