INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Cleveland Cavaliers can keep up the type of third-quarter dominance they showed throughout their first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers and apply it to the rest of the playoffs, a third straight trip to the NBA Finals seems like a foregone conclusion.
The Cavs outscored the Pacers by five in the third quarter of Sunday’s 106-102 victory to advance to the second round, closing out an Indiana team that challenged Cleveland from the very first tip-off.
All told, Cleveland outscored Indiana 124-87 in those third quarters.
The Cavs team on the floor in the third quarter of Game 4 -- a feisty defensive bunch that played with a gusto equal parts edge and enjoyment -- resembled the team that stormed through the start of the 2016 playoffs 10-0.
In the fourth quarter, Cleveland had to stave off an Indiana team that nearly erased double-digit deficits in three of the four games, only to come up short.
LeBron James’ late 3 put Cleveland ahead for good. He finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds.
"Tough team, we knew that coming into the series," James said afterward. "We locked into our scheme. Our coaching staff gave us a great game plan going into every game -- just trying to execute it."
It was a historic day for James, as the accolades continue to pile up for the 14-year veteran. The sweep was the 10th of his career, the most all time, edging Tim Duncan’s nine. It was also his 21st straight victory in a first-round game, the most in a row by any player since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984 (besting the record of 20 set by Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and James Worthy with the Los Angeles Lakers).
The rest of the league is dealing with injuries (Blake Griffin, Rudy Gobert, Rajon Rondo and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Durant) and adversity (San Antonio is tied 2-2 with Memphis, Toronto is tied 2-2 with Milwaukee, Golden State is missing coach Steve Kerr). But the defending champs got out of the first round unscathed, as quickly as possible.
Not that Indiana didn’t put a scare in the Cavs. The Pacers were a C.J. Miles midrange jump shot away from stealing Game 1 and held a 26-point second half lead in Game 3. Paul George was phenomenal. Lance Stephenson was his usual instigating self. Thaddeus Young defined hustle.
The victory assures the Cavs a full week off before they host either the upstart Bucks or familiar Raptors in the second round. For a group with the oldest roster in the playoffs, the rest is vital, but the time is also a chance to coalesce as a unit through practices, team dinners and playoff viewing parties. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue will be tasked with keeping his team’s wind -- as fatigue bogged down Cleveland’s offense late in Games 1 and 2 -- during the quasi-vacation.
While Cleveland’s warts, which were so apparent in the regular season, have not fully disappeared, several positive trends emerged in the performance against the Pacers.
Cleveland's bench grew into a reliable option, with Deron Williams flashing signs of his All-Star past, Channing Frye taking advantage of the open looks he got from the outside, Kyle Korver creating opportunities for everyone else with his floor spacing, and Iman Shumpert earning a place back in the rotation via hungry, attacking defense.