Even LeBron's team has to try

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3704/" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James">LeBron James</a> reacts to a call during the Cavs’ Wednesday loss to the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/bro/" data-ylk="slk:Brooklyn Nets">Brooklyn Nets</a> at Barclays Center. (Getty)
LeBron James reacts to a call during the Cavs’ Wednesday loss to the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. (Getty)

In general, when the Cleveland Cavaliers head to Barclays Center to take on the Brooklyn Nets, we tend to pencil in the final result pretty early in the proceedings. One team has represented the Eastern Conference in the last three NBA Finals; the other has gone 79-167 during that span.

Also, one team has LeBron James. The other (quickly checks Nets roster to confirm) doesn’t.

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Weird things can happen when Cleveland hits Brooklyn, though, and one happened on Wednesday night. A Nets team playing without top scorer D’Angelo Russell (out with a right knee sprain) took the fight to the King and his court, leading by as many as 14 points and weathering a mid-fourth-quarter Cavs run to score a 112-107 win behind 22 points from guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who stepped into Russell’s spot in the lineup and, as he said after the game, “embraced his inner D’Lo” with some audacious deep late-game shot-making:

Dinwiddie led six Nets in double figures, as Kenny Atkinson’s team took a many-hands-make-light-work approach to toppling the Cavs despite an impressive triple-double (29 points on 12-for-20 shooting, 13 assists, 10 rebounds, four blocks, eight turnovers) from a now-actually-listed-as-the-point-guard LeBron:

After coming back from 14 down — a deficit they’d earned through lackadaisical play that flat-out wasn’t up to the challenge of a hard-charging Nets team that, while still largely at a talent deficit, determinedly plays its collective rear end off every night — to take a lead into the final minute, the Cavs fell behind for good on Dinwiddie’s 31-foot bomb and squandered a chance to tie it up when LeBron missed the front end of a pair of free throws with seven seconds left. (Perfect timing, right?) James intentionally missed the back end, which teammate Kevin Love grabbed off the offensive glass, but was unable to put back for an equalizer before DeMarre Carroll rebounded it and forced a foul.

The Nets finished the game off at the free-throw line. The Cavs … well, they finished it a few seconds early:

On one hand, the Cavs’ frustration was understandable. They’d just gotten beaten by what looks to be a clearly inferior team, despite taking a lead into the closing minute. But while there were excuses to be made — no Isaiah Thomas, no Dwyane Wade, no Derrick Rose, Love and J.R. Smith combining to shoot 5-for-22 from the field — the blame ultimately rested with a subpar effort that put Cleveland in an early hole. Which, if we’re being honest, has been more the rule than the exception through the season’s opening week:

The loss packed a two-fold punch for the Cavs, who also stand to benefit from every Nets loss by virtue of owning Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round pick in the 2018 NBA draft, which came over in the blockbuster deal that brought Thomas to Cleveland and sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics. The worse the Nets’ record, the higher the Cavs will select, making every head-to-head game more important … and every head-to-head loss a little more painful.

“It might not even be that good of a pick,” James told reporters after the game, by way of praising a Nets team that, even without expected orchestrators Russell and the lost-for-the-season Jeremy Lin, looks to be making headway on its climb out of purgatory and back toward NBA respectability.

“They’re trying to play the game the right way,” James said after the game, according to Kristian Winfield of SB Nation. “That’s what they’re doing. They’ve got some good young pieces, those guys and they’re playing the right way and they’re sharing the ball […] They’re just playing free, free of mind, that’s exactly how they’re playing. They’re moving it, they’re sharing it and that’s good ball.”

James was less enthused about the brand of ball the Cavs brought to Brooklyn on Wednesday.

“Just taking us too much time to get into the game; like, get into the flow of the game,” he said, according to Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press. “Teams are playing with a faster pace than us to start the game and we have to figure that out for sure.”

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It would not be wise to bet against LeBron and the Cavs figuring it out before too long. We’ve seen too many prolonged lulls of one sort or another that have prompted scores of “What’s wrong with the Cavs?!?” takes, only to watch Cleveland bend back around toward ripping its Eastern opponents’ heads’ off when it actually matters, for us to put too much stock in early-season struggles.

But this iteration of the Cavs features the league’s oldest roster, and depends heavily on big minutes from Wade, Rose, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver and eventually Thomas. It already has a lower defensive ceiling than its predecessors, and could face different challenges in building a rampaging offense until/unless Thomas comes back in full form as a high-volume long-range missile launcher.

It’s not unreasonable to expect that a team that’s undergone as many recent changes as Cleveland has — signing Rose, offloading Irving, importing Thomas and Jae Crowder, adding Wade after his buyout, sending Smith and Tristan Thompson to the bench to make room for Wade, reorganizing on the fly by moving Wade to the second unit, shuffling again after an injury to Rose bumped LeBron to the point — will need some time to get on steady ground and start to gel. Until that happens, though, it’s also not unreasonable to look at the Cavs, especially on nights where they don’t really try all that hard until the final few minutes, and think they’re not that much better than less talented teams who are putting in the work.

Sure, we expect the Cavs to own a significantly better record than the Nets by year’s end. But having the same 3-2 mark, and about the same net rating, through the season’s first week? Yeah, that kind of seems about right.

It will take a pretty remarkable confluence of events for another challenger to supplant Cleveland as the class of the East; LeBron, by himself, tilts the odds just that much. It’s discrete outings like Wednesday’s, though, that leave the rest of the conference’s prospective contenders hopeful that the kind of performances that resulted in the Cavs taking an early exit from the court in Brooklyn could produce an early exit from the postseason come spring.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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