Kyrie Irving was still recovering from a lingering injury, leaving Jarrett Jack, Dion Waiters, and Matthew Dellavedova to man the point guard position. In typical Cleveland fashion, the weather was hovering around 35 degrees but the embers of playoff hope were still burning.
The number one seed in the East, the Indiana Pacers, were coming into town. Prior to the All-Star break the game looked like a sure loss for the Cavaliers. The Pacers were playing incredible defense, anchored by Roy Hibbert, and using their unparalleled length to bully opponents into poor shooting percentages. Concentrated bursts of scoring, from Paul George, Lance Stepehenson, and David West, mostly carried the Pacers offense.
But the Pacers had collapsed following the break. They were losing more than they were winning and rumors of their locker room implosion were plastered across the Internet. This was a team in free fall.
Cleveland needed to win.
It was an easy win.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the playoffs. The Hawks have claimed the 8th seed (despite their best efforts to relinquish it) and are now in the midst of a heated battle with the Pacers. Attempting to join history, the Hawks were one game away from becoming the sixth, eight-seed to knock-off a number one.
They failed and the Pacers got lambasted by the Wizards in the first game of the second round. But....
Could the Cavs have dethroned the Pacers? Could they have succeeded where the Hawks failed?
In our Season Review, I wrote that the one team I couldn't comprehend being better than the Cavaliers was Atlanta. Teams scored at a pretty good clip against the Hawks, registering a .462 field goal percentage (putting Atlanta in the bottom third of the league). The Cavs held teams to an almost respectable .452 (putting them in the upper half of the league).
On offense, Atlanta averaged 100.33 points per game. Cleveland averaged 98.22, according to Odds Shark. Hollinger recorded the Cavs offensive efficiency at 101.3 and Atlanta's at 103.4.
But Atlanta has no concrete superstar, particularly with Horford out. It's easy to look at Jeff Teague's performance now and say he was the clear leader. But Teague averaged less points than Kyrie on a slightly better shooting percentage (.438 for Teague, .430 for Irving). But Irving averaged more steals, less turnovers, more rebounds, and a superior three-point percentage. Teague did record about one more assist per game than Irving.
Horford was the X-factor for that Hawks team and when he went down for the season, their playoff hopes should have joined him. With Horford down and Teague covered, the only other potential volume scorer for Atlanta was Paul Millsap (who averages 17.9 ppg on .461 field goal percentage). The next leading scorer was Kyle Korver, who pretty much only shoots threes, and averaged an even 12 ppg.
However, the Hawks featured six players who averaged double digit scoring throughout the year. The Cavs had five players who achieved that feat, and Jack came within a half a point of joining them.
Irving averaged about 21 ppg. After him there was Waiters (15.9), Luol Deng (14.3), Spencer Hawes (13.5), and Tristan Thompson (11.5). Jack was scoring at a pace of 9.6 a game.
More importantly, how does that Cavs starting unit stack up against Indiana's?
With Hibbert becoming a non-factor, and often times appearing as a net minus during his court time, the Pacers defense fell apart. They made Teague look unstoppable and allowed Kyle Korver to block a 7'2 center, multiple times.
During the series, Teague and Millsap combined for nearly 40 ppg. Could Irving and Hawes have matched that output? Both Hawks' players shot below the .40 percent mark from the floor. Chances are Irving and Hawes could have at least matched those totals, with Irving certainly exceeding Teague.
Only three players for the Hawks averaged double figures during the Indiana series, Teague, Millsap, and Korver. If the Cavs join that series, in Atlanta's stead, they almost certainly get double digit contributions from some combination of these players: Irving, Waiters, Deng, Hawes, Thompson.
In addition, having a potential defensive stopper, in the form of Deng, to cover budding-superstar Paul George, would be a huge upgrade from DeMarre Carroll.
Irving vs. George Hill is actually a fairly interesting battle. Hill has, for the most part, neutralized Irving. But the sample size for head-to-head is tiny (only five games played against one another) and probably doesn't indicate much as far as player v. player goes, particularly because Hill was less than effective for most of the playoff series against Atlanta.
Waiters and Stephenson have a similar history. They've only matched up six times, and Lance has a slight edge in terms of production. Waiters averages about a point more than Stephenson per game. But Stephenson has a significantly higher shooting percentage (over 50 percent vs. Waiters .367) and takes about half the shots Waiters did in those contests (Stephenson took about 9 shots per game in those contests).
But Stephenson has averaged closer to 13 shots per game in these playoffs. And while his points per game have increased (15.0) his shooting percentage also dipped to .455 from the field.
We don't know what Waiters looks like in the playoffs.
Could Thompson have covered David West? Probably not effectively. West might have eaten him up, both in the paint and from the free throw line (where West tends to shoot his jumpers).
In their history of head-to-heads, West has more or less owned Thompson. They've matched up 11 times in the regular season. In those match-ups West's stats look like this:
12.4 ppg / .409 field goal percentage / 7.0 rbpg/ 2.4 asts/ 1.3 blocks
Thompson's weaker stat line goes like this:
7.0 ppg / .390 field goal percentage / 7.9 rebpg / 0.5 asts / 0.7 blcks
West has only once recorded less than double-digits against Thompson. Which means, 10 out of 11 times West has dropped at least 10 points over double T.
For giggles, let's also look at Spencer Hawes vs. Roy Hibbert, even though it's a null point.
Hibbert averages close to 14 ppg and 9 rebounds against Hawes, despite a sub-.400 shooting percentage from the field. Hawes records 10.6 ppg, 6 rebounds, and a shooting percentage of .489.
But none of that matters because Roy Hibbert's disappearance has been the story of the NBA's Eastern Conference playoffs. Hibbert is averaging 4.6 ppg, a depressing 3.3 rebounds per, a shooting percentage of .351, and 1.4 blocks.
He would have found himself on the bench for much of the Cavs' series. And who knows how Hawes plays in the series.
And Paul George probably would have still averaged close to 20 ppg (he recorded 23.9 ppg in the Atlanta series on a shooting percentage of .458). But could Deng have dropped his percentage? Could the Cavs have further capitalized on the implosion of the number one seed?
Here are some interesting numbers, through 12 regular season match-ups, Deng has gotten the better of George. Deng has more wins (7 to George's 5), scores more points (17.2 to George's 15.5), average a better field goal percentage (.393 vs. George's .380), hands out more assists (2.8 vs. George's 2.3) and has a higher 3-point percentage on a near-identical number of attempts (.279 vs. George's .255).
Now, most of those match-ups came with Deng playing in the beehive defense of the Bulls, and against a pre-Eastern Conference Finals Paul George. But George has never averaged less than .419 from the field. And in the playoffs, if we don't count George's 2010-2011 rookie season, he has never average less than .389 percent from the field.
The duo met once in the 2011 playoffs and young Paul George was no match for the savvy veteran Luol Deng, who owned him in every major category, save blocks where they both averaged 1.4 per game.
But Deng was unmotivated most of this year and, for large swaths of time, appeared uninterested in being part of the Cavaliers. If we assume the playoff atmosphere might have motivated him, and he could pull out a close approximation of his playoff self, could he have bottled George up? I'm guessing Deng's length and skill would have at least dropped that .458 field goal percentage closer to .400. And that drop would have been enough to ensure a Cavaliers victory.
At the end of the day, the Cavs were a more top-heavy team than the Horford-less Hawks. With a little more talent, and a little more defense, the Cavs might have knocked off the number one seed and proceeded to Washington, where they almost certainly lose to an ascending Wizards team. Still, would you trade the lottery pick for a historic playoff series win?