The full team returning was the supposed prescription for healing the Cleveland Cavaliers. With Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving out to start the year, the Cavs sleepwalked through their share of games the first seven weeks of the season as they relied heavily on LeBron James to have brilliant fourth quarter heroic efforts. At times, Cleveland played without much urgency and ignored details as if they too understood this was just a holding pattern until the real team returned.
The real team has returned and it has been pretty ugly on the offensive end.
The past three games, the Cavaliers have scored north of 90 points once, and that was to the New York Knicks when they scored 91 points. On the season, the Cavs aren’t a high octane offense. They don’t average 100 points a game. Their defense has kept them in games. But offensively, they haven’t been able to carry the mantle as the best team in the East, and the best team to knock off the Warriors.
The Cavaliers have played 11 games in December. In five of those games (Wizards, Heat, Celtics, Warriors, Trail Blazers) they failed to score 90 points. Their record in those games is predictably miserable, 1-4, winning in Boston on the strength of their defense.
The Cavs are heavily tilted towards two principles. LeBron James, the gifted, LeBron James the savior, and shutting down the opposing offenses. But as a rule, that is going to send them to losses, particularly on long road trips like this one. (They are 0-2).
There are two games left, Phoenix and Denver. On paper both games seem like a win, Phoenix just lost to the 76ers. But the Suns will want to erase that embarrassment and will come out strong tomorrow night. The road trip ends with another back to back, this one in Denver, a notoriously difficult second game to play in because of the fatigue induced by the altitude and the last game of the trip exhaustion.
Last night’s embarrassing display in Portland that had Damian Lillad watching from the bench as Alan Crabbe had a career night at the Cavaliers expense (who put up little to no effort to compete) is a trend with this team; there have been too many nights where they are going through the motions. It’s the theme of the season.
Not only are the Blazers headed for the lottery, they had lost five games in a row and Crabbe had been a vague presence. Until the Cavaliers came to town.
“Offensively we are in a funk right now. Our energy was lacking at the beginning of the game. It picked up but at some point it got so out of hand that it didn’t matter.” (LeBron James)
It’s an odd thing to hear about a team that lost in the Finals. Usually those teams whether it be Tim Duncan’s Spurs, LeBron’s Heat, or Kobe Bryant’s Lakers come out the gate with a vengeance, with blood dripping out their pores, as if they have been severely wronged and the rest of the league is going to pay.
But the facts are in black and white. The Cavs are 21st in scoring. 28th in pace. 27th in free throw attempts (when has that happened to a LeBron James team?), 29th in blocks, 28th in steals. Their identity this year is skewed towards stopping people rather than forcing teams to stop them. Their offense in David Blatt’s schemes has been negligent and apathetic.
Particularly gruesome on this three game swing in which their high in scoring was 91 points is their suddenly diseased three-point shooting. 22% against the Knicks. 16% in Oakland. Last night, they were a respectable 35% but they needed 31 shots to get there.
This $110 million dollar payroll has not lived up to its billing and it’s not entirely the injury bug that is to blame. The Cavaliers, even more so then the Warriors, have this fugue of pressure that is weighing them down. There is an absence of joy when they play; those LeBron James fun teams are over. It is oddly reminiscent of LeBron’s year one in Miami when he felt so much energetic anger emanating from The Decision that the only recourse was to prove people wrong.
But unlike that Heat team, the Cavs don’t really have much to prove here other than their Finals berth wasn’t a fluke. Still, it feels as if everything is at stake in this Warriors-Steph Curry NBA world. Everything the Warriors do is magnified against what the Cavs are not doing.
Clearly, Kyrie Irving needs time to get the rust off and Blatt has to reorder the rotation and design an offense so the Cavaliers aren’t so dependent on James in the 4th quarter. The Cavs point deferential is +4.6. The three teams ahead of them, the Thunder, Spurs and Warriors, have a point defenetial of +8.2, +13.1, +13.3.
The Cavaliers record against .600 winning percentage teams is 3-3. They beat the Heat, Hawks, Thunder. They lost to the Heat, Raptors and Warriors. They are average against the NBA’s best.
After 28 games, the record is 19-9. Last year at this same time, they were 17-11. There is a cautionary tale, though, for everyone expecting a repeat of last season’s 36-18 finish.
Last year in the East it was the Cavs and the Hawks and everyone else was a distant second. This year the Hawks are back near the top of the standings. The Pacers, Heat, Bulls and Raptors are all equal in terms of their ability to compete in the conference. It is a different year.
LeBron James: “There was nothing good we did tonight.”
It sounds like he’s preaching to the choir.
photo via llananba