On Wednesday afternoon, LeBron James acknowledged that his Cleveland Cavaliers had not yet hit their stride and weren’t quite ready for the rigors of the postseason, but that he wasn’t too worried about it.
“We’re not in playoff mode right now,” he said, according to Joe Vardon of cleveland.com. “We still have a process to continue to get better every night, continue to work our habits, continue to get the guys that haven’t been a part of the club for a full year, get them acclimated to what we want to do and we got guys coming back off of injury that are still trying to get back into the flow […] So some games are different than others, and it’s always good to have one of those playoff-type atmospheres, but every game is different.”
But Wednesday night’s game wasn’t all that different from many others the Cavs have put together recently, in that the Denver Nuggets utterly dominated a Cleveland defense that has gone from mediocre to moribund over the past couple of months. With playmaking center and rising star Nikola Jokic leading the way, seven Nuggets scored in double figures on a night that saw Denver shoot 53.1 percent from the field as a team, log 35 assists (against just six turnovers) on 51 made field goals, and score a whopping 70 points in the paint.
A Nuggets team that has boasted the NBA’s most efficient offense since Jokic’s mid-December elevation into the starting lineup deserves plenty of credit for that surgical performance. But Denver certainly had some help from a permissive Cavs defense …
a few bad defensive possessions from the cavs last night:
1/3 watch JR give chandler an open lane to the basket. lebron couldve helped pic.twitter.com/ZB7iVZOxFC
— nbaayy (@nbaayy) March 23, 2017
2/3 JR gets beaten off the dribble way too easily again. kevin love could've at least tried to contest the layup pic.twitter.com/ag27yVyiG5
— nbaayy (@nbaayy) March 23, 2017
3/3 this is probably the worst one. what are RJ and frye doing ???? pic.twitter.com/bK5TTba9ge
— nbaayy (@nbaayy) March 23, 2017
… and after the loss, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player made it clear that, “playoff mode” or no, Cleveland needs to bring more to the table on the defensive end of the floor. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said after Cleveland allowed Denver to put up 73 points in the first half […] “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”
James was asked how his individual defensive effort stacked up on a night when he registered a plus-minus of minus-30 in 34 minutes.
“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”
James’ call to arms received backing vocals from head coach Tyronn Lue, who highlighted one particular sequence as emblematic of his team’s lack of fortitude or, at least, engagement in the fight:
Lue pointed to a play with 3:10 in the third quarter, when Jameer Nelson knocked Kyrie Irving over while Irving was trying to dribble up the court.
Nelson was called for a common foul and Lue was incensed, and was slapped with a technical for arguing all the way down the court. In that particular moment, Lue said he was furious because Nelson should’ve been at least considered for a flagrant, but there was something else that stood out to him.
“A team’s up 40 points and they’re just playing physical and hard,” Lue said. “We’re down 40 and we got guys just walking away and doing whatever.”
That the Nuggets were only up 13 at the time of Nelson’s foul seems instructive. Denver had so summarily controlled the game’s physicality, tone and temper throughout the first three quarters that a deficit just a couple of shots away from being single digits felt nearly insurmountable, even given the Cavs’ nearly unparalleled ability to produce buckets in bunches.
That’s because as tremendous as Cleveland’s offensive attack can be, even without a full complement of healthy weapons, its defense has been flat-out dreadful for quite a while now. The Cavs’ defensive efficiency has fallen off a cliff over the course of the season, from average in 2016 (105.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, 16th-best out of 30 NBA teams) to abysmal in 2017 (110 points-per-100 conceded since Jan. 1, 26th out of 30) to downright appalling since the All-Star break (112.6-per-100, second-worst in the NBA, topping only the trying-their-damnedest-to-lose Los Angeles Lakers).
It’s somewhat understandable that a team with LeBron at the controls, Kyrie capable of roasting nearly any individual defender in single combat and a quiver full of deadeye shooters would believe it can defeat just about any opponent on the strength of its offense alone. But a lackadaisical approach on the other end has contributed significantly to Cleveland going just 5-7 in March, which has narrowed their lead over the Boston Celtics to just one game in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
There have been mitigating factors, of course. It’s been less than two weeks since J.R. Smith returned to the rotation after missing more than two months recovering from thumb surgery, and just over a week since Kevin Love came back after missing a month following knee surgery. Kyle Korver returned Wednesday after missing two weeks with an inflamed tendon in his sore right foot. The Cavs are still working out the kinks of integrating new pieces like Derrick Williams and Deron Williams, and had to change their personnel plans midstream when Andrew Bogut broke his leg one minute into his first game in Cleveland, leading the team to take a chance on talented but complicated rim protector Larry Sanders.
For a defending champion expected to maintain its dominance of the East without much incident, the Cavs have had to shuffle the deck quite a bit this season. That the overall lack of familiarity and continuity has led to some inconsistency — especially on the defensive end — and left Cleveland four wins off its pace through 70 games last season is pretty understandable, as Irving sees it. From McMenamin:
“There’s no comparison, man,” Irving said. “Last year compared to this year, you can’t even [compare]. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair because you see how we go on [comparing] the record, what’s our record at this particular date, and honestly, none of that s— matters. We’re trying to go into the playoffs as healthy as possible. Everybody is getting back. It’s been a very, very weird season for all of us. Injuries here and there. Things to figure out. New player trades and stuff like that.
“We’ll figure it out. I’m not concerned, though. These guys, our culture that is built here now over the last three years has been very great and something that we can all lean on to. We just got to stay more connected and just be there for one another, and we’ll be all right.”
On one hand, the Cavs’ persistent placement among the league’s 10 worst defenses this season seems troubling considering, as McMenamin notes, the only team in the last 20 years to win the NBA championship while finishing in the bottom half of the league in points allowed per possession was the 2000-01 Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers. On the other, we don’t have to think back too far to recall the last time we saw a middling-or-worse defensive team really crank things up in the postseason to make the Finals … because it was the Cavs. In LeBron’s first year back, Cleveland ended the 2014-15 season ranked 20th in defensive efficiency before completely clamping down come the postseason, allowing just 100.3 points-per-100 in their run to the championship round before a M*A*S*H unit crew operating without Irving or Love fell to the Golden State Warriors in six games.
Then again, that Cavs team ended the season on an uptick, ranking 13th in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break, rather than on the kind of precipitous decline they’ve experienced for three solid months. If Lue can’t get injections of ball-stopping intensity and effectiveness from somewhere — maybe from Sanders, maybe from discarded wing DeAndre Liggins (though finding minutes for him on the wing might be difficult with the Williamses around and Smith and Korver both healthy) — Cleveland could enter the postseason on shaky ground, vulnerable to opponents capable of breaking down the first line of defense and taking advantage of either absent help at the rim or overly frantic collapses that allow space for kickout passes and open long-range bombs. Start playing with fire against teams as explosive as Boston or the best possible versions of John Wall’s Washington Wizards and (a hopefully healthy) Kyle Lowry’s Toronto Raptors, and you might get burned.
Or, y’know, you might not.
ah, yes, my favorite time of year – when LeBron's team loses a bunch @ end of reg season and everyone forgets he's been to 6 straight finals
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) March 23, 2017
In the East, the road to the championship still goes through Cleveland until proven otherwise. But every passing game in which opponents pass by the Cavs without much more than token resistance inspires hope in other cities, even if it’s not yet inspiring anxiety in Northeast Ohio.
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