With Al Still Ailing, Indiana Opens Playoffs at Cleveland

After ending on a season-best five-game win streak, the Indiana Pacers enter the second season confident that they can give the Cleveland Cavaliers all they can handle in round one of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, they may have to do it—at least according to the most recent reports, which have Al questionable to play in Game 1—without No. 7.

On the injury front, Big Al’s status has not been updated since the final regular season game against the Atlanta Hawks, which he missed due to a lingering ankle injury. While he’s walking without a limp, No. 7 has not yet begun to run on his injured left ankle. He also suffered a small tweak during the Pacers April 9th practice that set him back and nixed a possible pre-playoff return to action.

THE MATCHUP

The Cavaliers enter the first round having lost their last four, and in the process, they surrendered the number one seed to the Boston Celtics.

A matchup that at one point in the season might have been viewed as fairly one-sided in favor of the Cavs could now see the Pacers gain a slight advantage. The Cavs actually give up two more points per game than do the Pacers and are ranked 29th in defensive rating since the All-Star break.

Both teams give up 10.4 three-pointers per game, creating the possibility of shootouts in the first round series. An area the Pacers have excelled in all season is forcing turnovers, evidenced by their sixth place rank in the league in that category. Given that the Pacers scored 15 percent of their points off turnovers this season, forcing the Cavs into giveaways will be a key to potential success.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about a playoff series involving LeBron James without invoking his remarkable career statistics. James has made it past the first round every year since 2006 and since 2012, all of those first round series have been sweeps.

However, some of LeBron’s toughest tests in the playoffs have come from the Pacers, most notably during his time with the Miami Heat.

Paul George was the only remaining player on the current roster from those years until Lance Stephenson was signed in the final weeks of the season. Stephenson and James’ matchups have been well documented and add an entertaining element to an already exciting series. The potential for a long series is there, so for now let’s end with three keys to a Game 1 win for Indiana.

1. Contain Lebron

A bit of a no-brainer, but the Cavs are Lebron’s team and have not yet proven they can play without him. Despite the Big Three, the Cavs went 0-8 without Lebron this season. One way to contain him is to get to him early in the shot clock. Lebron shoots 70 percent in the 24-22-second range and 66 percent in the 22-18 range, but those numbers tail off the longer into the possession he gets.

2. Rebounding

The Cavs have two double-digit rebounders in Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, with James not far behind them, and can control the pace of games with offensive rebounds. The Pacers were 21st in the league in defensive rebounds and that will need to improve to win this series.

If Big Al plays, that would be an area where he could make a significant contribution.

3. Control the paint

The Pacers gave up the fourth-fewest points in the paint this season and it will be up to Big Al and the rest of Indiana’s bigs to maintain that strength in the playoffs.

The series kicks off on Saturday at 3 p.m. EST and can be seen on ABC.

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