Amico: Cavs need new approach for playoffs

LeBron James and the Cavaliers aim to overcome an average finish to the regular season.

So here we are. The NBA playoffs. Cavaliers vs. Pacers in the first round. LeBron James vs. Paul George.

It could be a tough opening-round series for the Cavs. George is tough to handle.

“We’re ready for this,” George told Indianapolis reporters. “We’re playing great basketball right now.”

Still, most people expect the Cavs to survive and advance.

Beyond that, who knows?

The Cavs (51-31) were one of the league’s most average teams in the season’s second half — winning just 23 of their final 46 games. Yes, a few of those were throwaways where players rested, but many more were games the Cavs wanted to win.

So what’s the problem?

The biggest has been the Cavs’ lack of defense. It’s created organization-wide concern. The Cavs aren’t forcing their opponents to the baseline. Instead, they’re letting them drive right down the middle, then easily set the ball in the rim.

It’s been the worst kind of defense. I believe they call it “Swiss cheese,” or a defense that’s full of holes.

The Cavs can defend better than they did in the regular season. They have the personnel. But will they be engaged enough to make it happen?

A lot of folks around the league have their doubts.

ROLE PLAYING

The Cavs and people who follow them wonder what’s going on with a few of the players. The name mentioned most belongs to J.R. Smith.

You can see it in Smith’s face — he’s just not been the same this season. Part of it may have been the thumb surgery and the recovery that comes with it. But it often seems like more than that.

Smith sometimes looks lost, not engaged. He often seems like he’s just running around out there, not really making anything happen. It’s as if he’s not having fun out there.

True or not, the Cavs will need Smith. His perimeter defense and shooting were huge keys last year. He needs to pull it together.

That’s not to pick on J.R. He’s just one example of the team’s average stretch to close the season. Everyone knows the Big Three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will do their part. (Although there is some concern with Irving’s suddenly achy knee.)

But whether the Cavs can repeat will largely depend on the role players — men such as Tristan Thompson, Deron WilliamsChanning Frye, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert, who like Smith, often seems distracted.

Of course, it will be up to Cavs coach Tyronn Lue to make it all work, to find the right minutes for the right players, to find the right combinations and the right motivation for a team that’s looked less than engaged.

SECOND SEASON

Now, all of this may sound more dire than reality. The Cavs are, after all, the defending champions.

As far as we know, everyone is generally healthy. This is the same cast that won it all last season, with a few key additions in Korver, Deron Williams and even Derrick Williams. Perhaps new 7-foot-3 center Edy Tavares can contribute something special as well.

If the Cavs can put it together? Sure, they have an excellent shot at repeating.

But all we can really go on is what we’ve seen so far. So far, the Cavs look a little less than playoff-ready.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is the playoffs haven’t started yet. And here’s perhaps the main thing we’ve learned about these Cavs: They tend to be at their best when it means the most.