It’s been a rough string of games for the Cleveland Cavaliers defense. The last week has brought a number of concerning contests, from Wednesday’s 126-113 loss at the potent Denver Nuggets to last Sunday’s 125-120 win at the flailing Los Angeles Lakers. Win or lose, though, the signs are not great. Cleveland came into Saturday’s home game against the Washington Wizards ranked 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, had a notably poor transition defense well before this recent stretch, and boasts enough worries to raise questions about their viability to repeat as champions. The Cavs made the NBA Finals with a substandard in 2015 defense and will still enter the playoffs as favorites to win the East for a fourth-straight season, but that doesn’t mean everything is going to be fine.
The events of Saturday’s game won’t make anyone more confident. The Wizards got out to a very hot start, scoring 40 points in the first quarter and 31 in the second for a 71-61 halftime lead. That offensive explosion included a 69 percent mark from the field and an 18-point first quarter for All-Star point guard John Wall, who finished with a game-high 37 points (14-of-21 FG, 2-of-2 3FG, 7-of-8 FT) and 11 assists.
The second half occasionally looked like a return to form for the full-strength Cavs, who managed to cut the lead to 96-91 by the end of the third quarter and back to within five points on several occasions in the fourth. However, the Wizards always had an answer and never allowed the hosts to get closer than five. Their eventual 127-115 win was perhaps their best of the season so far — a show of offensive force against the East’s elite squad, a bit of revenge for the Cavs’ win in a thrilling contest in D.C. in early February, and a nice way to continue a three-game winning streak following a questionable run of four losses in five.
This particular loss need not raise significant concerns for the Cavaliers, because they’re in the midst of a hellish stretch of the schedule that could make any team look a little out of sorts. A March 1 loss at the Celtics began a month of 12 road games and just four home games, two of which broke up road trips with mere one-game stints at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs have started that 16-game March at 6-7 and will visit the San Antonio Spurs on Monday for the toughest matchup of the bunch.
These circumstances do not sound fun at all, and it’s possible we should view this period as Cleveland’s version of the Golden State Warriors’ road trip that raised significant worries about their ability to hold on to the West’s No. 1 seed. The Warriors lost their position to the Spurs during that skid, and the Cavs are now in danger of doing the same to the Celtics. They hold a mere half-game advantage in the standings and could find themselves in a virtual tie for the top spot if Boston beats the Miami Heat at TD Garden on Sunday. All it took for the Warriors to find themselves again was a short homestand after so much time on the road.
Tonight feels like another road game in 2-week trip. Home for 24hrs & right back out. Everyone has dreaded this stretch since sked released
— Jason Lloyd (@JasonLloydNBA) March 26, 2017
On the other hand, the Cavs weren’t exactly dominating the competition before March, either:
On 1/8, CLE was 28-8. Gone 19-17 since adding Korver, DWillX2, Sanders & Bogut (gone in 58 secs). Also, JR returned & Love missed 14 games
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) March 26, 2017
At some point, the problems with the Cavs defense cannot be waived away with contextual explanations. On Saturday, the Wizards managed to score in a variety of ways — Wall was merely the most explosive of their seven players in double figures. Bradley Beal (27 points on 9-of-19 FG) joined his backcourt partner with big numbers, but it was arguably reserves Jason Smith (10 points on 4-of-4 FG) and Kelly Oubre Jr. (16 points on 7-of-8 FG) whose contributions stood out more. Whether via jumpers (for Smith) or drives to the basket (for Oubre), the Wizards found plenty of ways to get on the board.
When the opposition scores so much, it takes near-superhuman efforts from the Cavs’ capable offense to get the job done. They shot reasonably well (49.4 percent from the field and 12-of-33 from deep), but such numbers cannot compete with such dominance on the other side. If not for the presence of LeBron James (24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists), who nearly missed the game with a scratched cornea (and who ditched his protective glasses in the first quarter), Cleveland likely would have been blown out.
The question is how much any of these supposed problems will matter once the Cavaliers get into the playoffs. Even if they lose homecourt advantage in the East, the Cavs will enter the postseason as the conference’s clear favorite, a battle-tested group with the best player in the world, more playoff-ready stars, and plenty of capable veterans to match up with any opponent. For that matter, everyone is now healthy after a season full of nagging and long-term injuries. Cleveland also plays six of its last eight games at Quicken Loans Arena and should be able to put together some sort of winning streak to move past this ongoing run of form.
Whatever happens over the next few weeks, though, it’s a safe bet that the Cavaliers will begin the playoffs with questions to answer about the strength of their defense. And it’s possible that nothing but another championship will silence them.
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