Every time you think the Cleveland Cavaliers must have hit rock bottom, they seem to find a way to dive a little further down. Which makes sense, when you think about it. When’s the last time you saw Cleveland get a stop?
For a second there, it looked like the Cavs were on track to bounce back from their Saturday obliteration at the hands of the Houston Rockets, riding dominant play from LeBron James and steady contributions from supporting cast members J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and even the slow-rolling Isaiah Thomas to a 67-51 halftime lead over the Orlando Magic. Despite losing head coach Tyronn Lue early in the second quarter to an undisclosed illness, Cleveland seemed poised to get back on the right side of the ledger, provided they could close out a team that entered Tuesday with the NBA’s second-worst record, without injured rising star Aaron Gordon, and on the second half of a back-to-back.
He erupted for 22 of his 27 points in the 3rd. pic.twitter.com/iPupmigPR0
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) February 7, 2018
Orlando absolutely ate the Cavs alive after intermission, ripping off a 19-2 mid-third-quarter run to turn what had been a 21-point first-half deficit into a 78-77 lead, thanks in large part to the relentless attacking of swingman Jonathon Simmons. The former San Antonio Spurs standout wasn’t supposed to play on Tuesday, with the Magic coming off a Monday night win, but he scored 22 points in the third quarter alone — as many as Cleveland managed as a team, just seven below his previous full-game career high, and the most in any single frame by a Magic player since Tracy McGrady in 2004 — and capped his scintillating effort with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that gave Orlando a 92-89 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
But surely, the Cavs would bounce back from this. After all, the Magic couldn’t keep shooting 70 percent from the floor, right?
Well, no. Despite the sparkling generosity of the Cavaliers’ defense …
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) February 7, 2018
… Orlando did cool off, posting 24 points on 9-for-20 shooting in the final frame. The Cavs, though, couldn’t capitalize, mustering a grand total of nine — nine — points of their own in the fourth. Cleveland went 3-for-18 as a team in the last quarter, going scoreless for more than 5 1/2 minutes to allow the Magic to salt away a stunning 116-98 win that adds fuel to the raging inferno of a diaper-fire that is the current state of the three-time-defending Eastern Conference champions.
The Cavs have now lost 14 of their last 21. They’re still in third place in the East, behind the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, but they’re just percentage points ahead of the Washington Wizards for that spot, and only four games ahead of the ninth-place Detroit Pistons — which is to say, four games from being out of the playoffs. They got outscored by 34 points in the second half by a team whose play this season has frequently left head coach Frank Vogel looking like he has just seen a ghost. Since the start of 2018, only the abysmal Phoenix Suns have been outscored by more points per 100 possessions than the team that employs LeBron Freaking James.
The Cavs won’t have their second-best player, All-Star forward Kevin Love, for the next two months. Any boost they hoped to get from the return of Thomas, an elite-scoring MVP candidate a year ago, seems about that far off, too. Through 14 games of his return from a torn hip labrum, Thomas is shooting 36 percent from the field and 23 percent from 3-point land, and the already defenseless Cavs are hemorrhaging points to an even more obscene degree with the 5-foot-9 point man on the floor. He’s eating up a star’s share of offensive possessions but doesn’t have the legs, rhythm or touch to do anything with them, and while this was to be expected after spending seven months on the shelf, that doesn’t make sitting through it while everything else burns any easier … especially when Isaiah continues to lob (accurate) post-game grenades.
“When adversity hits, we go our separate ways” – Isaiah Thomas
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) February 7, 2018
There do not appear to be many major tactical levers to pull here; Lue’s chosen starting lineup shuffle went by the wayside when Love went down, and the new model (James, Thomas, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Jae Crowder) has been outscored by 51 points in 67 minutes thus far. So we look outside, but while everybody’s trying to find the trades that will solve all of Cleveland’s issues, it’s become increasingly evident that no trade can do that — in part because what’s dismantling this team goes far beyond pick-and-roll coverages and floor-spacing.
It’s about a lack of trust, and divisions deep in the fabric of the franchise, and a growing distance between the franchise player and the franchise that threatens to decimate the organization for the second time this decade. We saw the cracks in the Cavs’ foundation early this season: the lack of effort, the evident age, the defensive poverty. Now, they’ve grown large enough that it seems a question of when, not if, everything falls apart — when, not if, the house that LeBron and Dan Gilbert have built will collapse under the staggering weight of history and title-chasing.
This is bad. This is staggeringly, galactically bad. You’re tempted to say that it can’t get worse than this … until you look at the schedule, and see that Wednesday brings another national TV game, the Cavs’ bete noire, against Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who beat the hell out of Cleveland last month and will be coming off three days of rest to take on a Cavs team on the second half of a back-to-back. It can get worse. And unless an awful lot of people change an awful lot of things awfully quickly, it will.
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