Through two games of what should be a long playoff run, it would be easy to look at the Cleveland Cavaliers and think all is right in their world. The defending champions are up 2-0 in their best-of-seven first round series against the Indiana Pacers after a 117-111 victory Monday night, and should move into the second round of the playoffs without a great deal of difficulty.
Simply advancing to the second round, however, is not Cleveland's goal. That's not why the Cavaliers have the league's highest payroll, or why they have LeBron James, the world's best player.
But if the Cavaliers are going to accomplish their only true goal - repeating as NBA champions - they are going to have to, at some point, start playing defense.
So far, there is absolutely no reason to believe the team that spent the final two months of the regular season assuring everyone it would flip a switch and begin playing defense once the playoffs began has that capability, particularly near the level necessary to win another title. The Pacers, a middling offensive team during the regular season (15th in offensive rating), have shot at or over 50 percent while easily eclipsing 100 points in both Games 1 and 2. Their star, Paul George is scoring over 30 per game and shooting 49 percent from the floor.
The equation is simple: if a team hopes to win a championship, it needs to defend. As ESPN's Tom Haberstroh succinctly laid out, only two teams since 1980 - the 1995 Houston Rockets and the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers - have finished outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency and won a championship. Houston was 12th, while Los Angeles, the team Cleveland and its fans pray this group mirrors - finished 21st.
Cleveland was 22nd in defensive efficiency this season. Even worse, since the all-star break - a span of 27 games, in which the Cavaliers have gone 12-15 - they've been 29th, finishing just one-tenth of a point ahead of the horrendous, tanking Lakers to avoid being the worst defensive team in the league over that stretch.
Yet the Cavaliers promised that things would eventually be fine because, according to Coach Tyronn Lue, they were holding back their best stuff for the playoffs.
"We've got to hold back," Lue told reporters after getting handled at home by the Washington Wizards in late March. "We can't show our hand early because . . . these are some good teams and we don't want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do.
"We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens."
This is where the proverbial "flipping the switch" comes in. Cleveland's backers have maintained it will figure things out once the games begin to matter, and that by ratcheting up the intensity and effort - not to mention any secret plans - things will change once the playoffs begin.
This is why those 2001 Lakers have been held up as an example of what the playoffs could be for Cleveland, especially considering how well those playoffs went for the Lakers. No team better defines the concept than that one, which rolled through the postseason on its way to a second straight title behind the combination of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, both of whom were at the peak of their powers as part of a devastating combination few teams in NBA history could match.
These Cavaliers, however, have fundamental flaws that will make repeating that success extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. Cleveland's incompetent play at that end for the past several weeks is the most obvious reason, but not the most important one, which is a lack of players capable of actually ratcheting up its defensive ability to an acceptable level in the first place.
Outside of Tristan Thompson, who is a good defensive player, and James, who can be when he's locked in and motivated to be (which, understandably, is not all the time in his 14th year in the NBA at age 32) Cleveland regularly plays no one who can honestly be considered better than an average defender.
Iman Shumpert's play on the defensive end once could be considered at that level, but he's dropped off this season to the point where he was benched for the first six quarters of the series. Shumpert was only exhumed by Lue when J.R. Smith, one of Cleveland's better defensive players simply by virtue of being average, left Game 2 with a hamstring injury.
Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving doesn't guard anyone, Kevin Love is below average, and reserves Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Deron Williams all provide excellent scoring and floor spacing for Cleveland but are never going to be confused with any stoppers.
What the combined presence of so many offensive weapons does provide, unquestionably, is a path back to the NBA Finals. For all of the doubts about the Cavs defensively, they still are capable of putting up an offensive barrage that really only one team - the Warriors - can truly match in a head-to-head battle. That, plus the obvious advantage of having James on its roster, still makes Cleveland a clear favorite to make it back for a third straight season, despite what should be a far stiffer test in the Eastern Conference than in previous years.
The ultimate goal, however, remains the same. And if the Cavs want to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy again, they need to somehow, someway, figure out how to improve their effort and execution defensively. If not, their fate is already sealed.