Saturday was supposed to be about LeBron James claiming another career milestone.
Instead, it was the latest ugly chapter in Cleveland’s ongoing midseason swoon as the Cavs got worked by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Cavs, whose defensive challenges are well-documented, gave up an astonishing point total for a supposed championship contender in a 148-124 loss at home. In regulation.
James needed 25 points on Saturday to pass Kobe Bryant as the youngest player in NBA history to reach 30,000 points. He struggled to 18 while missing all four of his three-pointers and watching Thunder stars score seemingly at will on Cleveland’s home court.
Oklahoma City saw each of its big three get past 20 points with Steven Adams joining the trio with a 25-point, 10-rebound effort of his own. Paul George led the way with 36 points and seven rebounds, while Carmelo Anthony logged 29 points and 10 rebounds. Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, came up one rebound short of what would have been a spectacular triple-double with 23 points, 20 assists and nine rebounds.
— NBA (@NBA) January 20, 2018
As a team, the Thunder shot 58 percent from the field and hit 14-of-30 three-point attempts.
In short, the Cavs got taken to the woodshed.
The rough stretch has prompted questions about head coach Ty Lue’s tenure in Cleveland, which James addressed with Cleveland.com after the game.
#Cavs LeBron James on Ty Lue possibly fired: “I would hope not, but really don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen with our team. I have no idea what conversations have been going on. I’ve been trying to stay as laser-sharp as I can to keep my guys ready to go out & play"
— Chris Fedor (@ChrisFedor) January 21, 2018
Cleveland’s already struggling defense has been made worse with the addition of Isaiah Thomas, one of the league’s worst defenders. Thomas was the Cavs’ best option on offense Saturday with 24 points, including 4-of-8 three-point shooting. But that didn’t matter.
Offense has never been an issue for this Cavs team, which is 3-6 since adding Thomas to the lineup on Jan. 2. Thomas sat out road losses to the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers during that span, but it’s safe to say things aren’t working with him so far, even with a small sample size.
Thomas deflected a question about his individual defense after the game and pointed to what he saw as a better team effort when he played for the Boston Celtics.
“In Boston, we were just a better defensive team,” Thomas told reporters. “We played a lot harder.
“I think on that end right now, we don’t trust each other. And that has to change.”
During their recent slide, the Cavs have given up 133 points to the Toronto Raptors, 127 points to the Minnesota Timberwolves, 118 points to the Golden State Warriors and now Saturday’s disaster against the Thunder.
Those are all playoff teams, the kind of competition Cleveland is going to have to conquer if it plans to get back to the NBA Finals, much less compete with a high-octane Western Conference foe for a championship.
As for the wins since Thomas’ arrival? One came at home against the Portland Trail Blazers. The other two were over the Orlando Magic, who are sitting firmly in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland’s woes have led to discussions of the Cavs trading for backcourt help in Sacramento Kings point guard George Hill. There are also reports that the Cavs are eyeing Los Angeles Clippers center Deandre Jordan and guard Lou Williams.
What’s clear is that the Cavs have quickly moved into desperation mode on the heels of an 18-1 stretch that had many inking Cleveland in for yet another NBA Finals appearance for James.
But that looks like a much dicier proposition at this point. How Cavs management responds to this swoon just may determine if Cleveland makes it back to the Finals and decide the long-term prospect of James sticking in Cleveland.