Not wanting a fine that comes with criticizing the refs, not wanting to talk about a phantom six foul on LeBron James, not wanting to talk about a disastrous loss and their accountability, the Cleveland Cavaliers bite their collective tongues and bear the mediocrity (and losing). The axis tilting from greatness to just hanging on is familiar now but still strange. Defending champs, at this time of year, are fine tuning everything and are not at a loss for words. So something has gone wrong here for the defending champs a week before the playoffs are supposed to start and their title defense goes full swing. If the Cavs thought losing to a bunch of Atlanta scrubs was a low point, welcome to how low can you go. Any thought of the Cavaliers swiftly getting through the end of the season unscathed has been put to rest. Instead, the fugue surrounding the Cavs is a familiar inhale of angst, and it just keeps on getting worse.
Their 26 point 4th quarter collapse followed by an overtime collection of mistakes, not to mention the suspicious last foul that sent LeBron James to the bench, has the Cavs on the wrong end of peaking at the right time. This is the wrong month to forget how to inbound the ball, to run over the defender waiting for you to drive the lane, to not play harder than your opponent, to take bad hero shots, to defend like you’d rather be at home cleaning out the garage.
Very little has structurally changed from January to April except interest. If the Cavs don’t have heroics by _______ fill in the blank, then the likelihood of the Cavs losing on the road where they look very ordinary is exponentially high.
At Chicago, the Cavs lost with an anemic offensive performance. At San Antonio they were manhandled and lost by 29. At Denver they lost by thirteen. They beat Boston and everyone thought they were back. No. They are not back.
12 road games. 8 losses.
James blamed the loss at Atlanta on the officiating without directly blaming the officiating, calling it “bad breaks” but the Cavs need to look at themselves. Bad officiating doesn’t erase a 26 point lead. An inability to inbound the ball isn’t on the officiating. Bad shot selection, not playing hard, their usual catastrophic defense isn’t officiating. Did calls go against them? Yes. Do calls always go against them and every NBA team? Yes.
It doesn’t matter what LeBron says now or how many team meetings the Cavs have or how eloquent their autopsy happens to be post-game, the trend speaks for itself. Contenders don’t have losing road records to end the season.
The Cavs look beatable but that isn’t the real problem. They look bored and very average and not like a team who wants to defend something. Is this normal from a defending champion? The Cavs last 20 games, they are 9-11. The champion Warriors in 2016 were 16-4 at the same point in the season. The champion Spurs in 2015 were 17-3. The champion Heat in 2014 were 11-9. That was LeBron James who couldn’t will the Heat to extraordinary before the playoffs began. History repeating itself?
The Cavaliers were so lethargic and disinterested a few days ago when they played the Hawks, former Cav and current Cleveland analyst Austin Carr almost blew a blood vessel in his brain he was so disgusted at what he was seeing. And what he was seeing was a lack of respect for the bench players who took the court and then proceeded to blow the Cavs out.
Sunday afternoon, for three quarters, the Cavs had their revenge. But then it was back to old habits. Turnovers. Mistakes. Bad shots. Expecting the big three to save them. Defense optional.
Despite how it all looks, it is hard to really believe the Cavs will not be ready to turn the switch and roll through the league, particularly the east. But then you look at their defense. 20th in points allowed. 18th in three point defense. Last season they were 4th in points allowed and 13th in three point defense, so yes, they have fallen off and are hoping their offense can pick up the slack.
But James is older now and far less tolerant of his teammates flaws than he used to be. He is the only one of the Cavs with a heightened sense of urgency. Frustrating for him, he hasn’t been able to fully suffocate the team with his own desperation. Is he the only one who understands that the Cavs have to earn a trip to the Finals, no one is going to just hand them wins, that LeBron James is no guarantee for anything? The entire team has to play well otherwise a LeBron triple double is wasted.
Conquering their bad habits with discipline, erasing boredom and morose body language when they play on the road is the most basic prescription and it sounds a little infantile. But it’s true. When the fourth quarter comes around and the Cavs depend solely on LeBron James to save them, they are setting themselves up to fail long term. Or when LeBron is on the bench in the 4th, relieved by subs and the scene of the crime is horrific damage, that is failure too. The league has too much depth and scoring and ball movement to just roll over because the Cavs won a title ten months ago.
If nothing else, what was predicted as a boring post season for the east just got a little more interesting with the Cavs treading water and pretending nothing is broken.
photo via llananba