Amico’s Preview: LeBron, Cavs must out-scrap Pacers

LeBron James, J.R. Smith and the Cavaliers will have to keep an eye on Pacers star Victor Oladipo.

When the Cavaliers begin their first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, they’ll want to pay attention to more than just Victor Oladipo.

Granted, the Pacers star shooting guard has to be the focus, as Oladipo has become the type of individual scorer who can take over a game at winning time.

But the Pacers are no one-man team. As the Cavs saw in their four regular-season meetings, the Pacers play hard, play smart, and are extremely well-coached under Nate McMillan.

In their first season without Paul George, the Pacers are pesky.

They are also a much more cohesive bunch. George was said to be a locker-room distraction at the end of last season, more of a hindrance than a help.

The Cavs played one of their worst playoff series in franchise history — and still ended up with a sweep.

Oladipo is a more selfless star than George and for this Pacers team, a better leader. The Cavs can’t play like crap and expect to win this time.

But this is also a different Cavs team since last season, and since losing three of four to the Pacers during this regular season. Multiple trades in early February shook up not only the roster, but brought some positive energy to the locker room and court.

The four new Cavaliers — George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson — are expected to be difference-makers. Hill and Hood are likely to start.

KINGS OF EAST?

Of course, when it comes to the Cavaliers, it all comes down to LeBron James. He is having a super-duper year (even by LeBron standards) and with the way things have been going lately, no one man (or team) can hope to contain him.

The Pacers have no illusions of doing that. They just want to make life as difficult as possible for James, and take the other Cavs out of their rhythm.

Not a bad plan, because even with Kevin Love solidifying himself as the clear No. 2 option, the Cavs are very much LeBron and the James Gang. More than any other time during his second stint in Cleveland, he will have to place the Cavs on his back and carry them — practically alone.

One the bright side for the Cavs, LeBron is still capable.

But they have a major uphill climb this season, even in the Eastern Conference, from where they have emerged three consecutive times. Amazing when you stop, pause and really think about it.

This year, the Cavs are the No. 4 seed. The Pacers are fifth, and got there via pure hustle and believing in the system, in themselves.

So the Cavs will have to out-Pacer the Pacers if they want to get out of this series quickly.

If not, well, they’ll have to rely on James more than ever. It’s something he may be getting used to this year.

But that’s not a surprise to the Cavs’ brightest star. When he returned to Cleveland, he wrote that winning titles wouldn’t be easy. It would be the biggest challenge of his career, he admitted.

Today starts perhaps his greatest challenge of all. And if these Cavs can get to the top again, it will most definitely be his greatest achievement.