- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Don’t bother listening to anyone that tries to tell you that the Cleveland Cavaliers are in the Golden State Warriors’ or San Antonio Spurs’ exalted realm. That was evident long before the Cavs dropped two games to both teams within a five day span, with the Golden State loss coming in embarrassing fashion on the Cavaliers’ champagne-stinkin’ home court.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
However; this, and regular season glory, was never the point. The Cavaliers might be smarting after Monday’s 34-point shellacking on Thursday’s combustible loss in San Antonio, but the Cavs are still in the same place we found them in last October. Or, if we’re honest, the same place we observed them in following last June’s loss to the Warriors in the Finals.
They’re going to make their way out of the East, settle into a Finals setting, and see what happens when up to seven basketball games featuring LeBron James are scheduled.
This is why James is preaching composure, dangit, as the Cavs stare down another half-season and playoff run before they can get to June and make it all better.
"I'm not going to put too much into it," James said.
He also said it wasn’t the right time to harp on teammates about the loss.
"There’s nothing to say," James said. "It’s easy to say something when it’s bad. I like to get on us when we’re doing well, to try and keep us focused. I’m not a kick-a-man-when-you’re-down type of guy. That’s not my motto."
"It's never as bad and it's never as good as it may seem when you're going through it," James said. "Obviously, you want to play well and especially on a stage like this versus the defending champions. But for me as a leader of this ball club over the last six or seven years, I've always been even-keeled about wins and losses, especially at this juncture of the season."
Failing to execute down the stretch of a close contest against a good team is worth a locker room shouting match. Letting a subpar team come back from what should have been a blowout-level deficit to make things interesting in the fourth quarter is worth a team meeting. Staying out too late the night before a matinee game, or selfishly looking for your own numbers, that’s worth a face-to-face stare down.
This? What’s yelling going to do after a 34-point loss on national TV? Monday’s game didn’t talk, it swore.
Phil Jackson had a go-to phrase whenever his Bulls or Lakers team barely showed up in blowout losses. In a line he probably cribbed from some high school or CBA coach along his journey, he asked his guys to let those sorts of losses “wash off and go down the shower drain.”
The Cavs have to commit to that. They can’t ignore the lessons learned from the Warriors and Spurs losses, but the preseason goal here remains. The regular season is not a proving ground for this outfit, but rather a practice field. The team needs to finish with the best record in the East, and get to the Finals in full health. Those who dole out thousands of dollars for Cavalier tickets might not want to hear this, and it isn’t as if James is taking many games off these days, but we’re still three weeks away from the All-Star Game and a good five months away from that Finals test.
If you think that we’re stamping LeBron and Co.’s Finals ticket too early, that’s understandable. It’s worth recalling, however, that at various times in the Eastern Conference semis and finals that the Cavaliers were working without home court advantage, and the team still prevailed in sound fashion despite playing without Kevin Love.
Second-place Toronto is just three games in back of Cleveland after the Cavs’ toughest stretch of the season, and their unrelenting attack still has plenty of room to grow. Chicago has its moments, and could go up 2-0 in the season series with Cleveland with a win on Saturday. A dogged Boston Celtics team, featuring Jae Crowder taking on all comers defensively, could give the Cavs pause in the first round. Indiana and Miami remain star-driven wild cards. The East is as deep, if not as championship-fit, as it has been in 18 years.
The easy hook here is that the Cavs are going to come out of the East, unless something goes terribly wrong. However, with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving limping, two things went terribly, terribly wrong last spring and Cleveland still made it out of their side of the bracket with no flies on ‘em. It’s true that Chicago had given up on its season by that point and Atlanta watched as its two best wing defenders were either taken from them or partially felled, but there’s no reason to think Cleveland has a significant obstacle in May.
What about January?
What about it?
The Spurs loss was disheartening. The Cavs were up double-figure points early on, but San Antonio cobbled together its usual clinic over the final three quarters of play. The Spurs are somehow on pace for 71 wins of their own while beating teams by over 14 points per game – a mark that would serve as an NBA record. They’re doing all this while sitting what still might be the league’s best two-way player, Tim Duncan, for 22 out of a possible 48 minutes a night. This is an astonishing team.
The Warriors loss wasn’t exactly a wakeup call, Cleveland knows where it’s at, but it does provide 36 minutes’ (Golden State basically took the fourth quarter off) worth of scouting tools in hi-definition video to work with. Just three weeks after Cleveland held GSW to 61 points over the course of the final three quarters of the Cavaliers’ Christmas Day loss, the Dubs sprang for 70 by halftime on Monday.
It was Cleveland’s first game back at home in two weeks, always an NBA hellscape for the returning team, but it is hard to excuse or even argue away what we saw.
Terrible communication, defensively. A stagnant offense, and a continued inability to weave the collective All-Star-level talents of James, Irving and Kevin Love together offensively. Coach David Blatt, frankly, looked overmatched by his rookie (and interim) Golden State counterpart in Luke Walton; with the sad caveat that this isn’t a Doug Collins/Phil Jackson situation.
This isn’t a band of 20-somethings who need The Next Guy to run the sidelines. No, these Cavs need to win now. LeBron’s on the wrong side of 30, and for the first two months of the season so was his perimeter shooting percentage.
This team is not on Golden State or San Antonio’s level, something everyone knew prior to last week, and something we now have tangible evidence of that drives deeper than points per 100 possession marks. So, they’re more “Thunder” than “Warrior.”
So what? We think Oklahoma City has a good-enough chance against the West’s top two teams in a playoff series, why not the Cavaliers?
Cleveland fans probably weren’t anticipating “why not us?”-status following the fantastic summer of 2014, but that’s just where we’re at now. It has less to do with any Cavalier failings (though there is room to improve) and much, much more to do with the fact that we’re seeing some legendary basketball at the top of the Western Conference right now.
- - - - - - -