Monday’s humiliating 106-103 loss to depleted Memphis represented a low point in the Cavaliers’ maddeningly inconsistent season. No Marc Gasol, no Mike Conley, no Zach Randolph, no problem for the Grizzlies, who followed a now familiar formula: punch Cleveland in the mouth early (33 points in the first), absorb a little bullying and then bully the Cavs right back. A ragtag Memphis lineup attacked relentlessly, convinced heart and hustle would be enough to close the considerable talent gap.
It did, and better teams across the NBA have come around to believe the same thing. No, the sky is not falling in Cleveland. The Cavs remain atop the Eastern Conference standings and have the equalizer – James – that no team can account for. But teams can account for everyone else. Strategies are simple: Pick-and-roll Love to death, move the ball patiently against an opportunistic defense, and hope James doesn’t have a Herculean fourth quarter in him.
Irving remains a dynamic scorer, but the disconnect between Irving and James is real, several scouts and coaches told The Vertical, with the on-court chemistry between the two, said one scout who saw Cleveland play recently, “basically nonexistent.” Team sources insist the relationship is solid, that James is simply teaching, trying to raise Irving’s basketball IQ. No one understands Irving’s importance more than James, team sources told The Vertical, which is why no one is working harder than James to get the two All-Stars on the same page.
Last season, Cleveland was the conference boogeyman, the wrecking ball that took out Boston, battered Chicago and steamrolled a 60-win Atlanta team in four games. Once, they were feared; today, they are hunted. Toronto has taken two of three from Cleveland this season, and the Raptors crave recognition as a member of the league’s elite. Boston coughed up an 18-point lead on Friday but emerged less humbled than defiant.
Said Jae Crowder: “[We know] how to beat them.”
The clock is ticking in Cleveland, with more questions now than the Cavaliers have answers. James continues to send cryptic motivational tweets into cyberspace and none of them has stuck. Tyronn Lue wants to play faster, and the rookie coach has ratcheted up his efforts to play smaller. James started at power forward in a win over Washington on Friday, a game Love sat out. Love was in the lineup on Saturday, but stapled to the bench in the fourth quarter, with Lue entrusting Tristan Thompson with the role of frontcourt enforcer against a Boston offense that targeted Love early and often. Love is already in a rut, connecting on 23.5 percent of his 3’s since the All-Star break. It’s hard to see a reduced fourth quarter role helping him break out of it.
Superior talent is still Cleveland’s best weapon, but with a little over a month to go in the regular season, the Cavs have to ask: Will it be enough? The Raptors are rolling and defensive menace DeMarre Carroll is inching closer to a return. Boston is young, developing, but it oozes confidence at home and has the masterful Brad Stevens on the sideline. The road to the Finals won’t be as easy as it was last year, and the reception for even a healthy Cavaliers team once there will be even rougher.
James once acknowledged the challenges he would face in Cleveland, but even he could not have envisioned this. A roster stocked with stars and loaded with depth is still searching for its basketball identity. A team defined by changes is running out of time to find stability.