There is a widely held belief that, no matter how the Cleveland Cavaliers scuffle and stumble during the regular season — the home loss to eight-man Memphis, the fourth-quarter collapse against a Jazz team without Gordon Hayward, the 21-point waxing at the hands of the Heat — none of it really matters so long as the Cavs are healthy and whole come the playoffs. There's also not necessarily any shame in losing the second game of a back-to-back on the road after traveling overnight to take on a team coming off a day of rest, especially in late March, with the weight of the last five months leaving your legs feeling leaden.
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And yet, watching LeBron James react to the Brooklyn Nets pulling away from Cleveland late in the fourth quarter ...
... all the confusing maybe-motivational methods melt away, and you're left with something that's very easy to understand: LeBron wants help, and he wants consistency, and he wants them now.
He didn't get them Thursday night at Barclays Center. The Nets — owners of the league's third-worst record, having lost nine of their last 11 games — topped Cleveland, 104-95, outpacing the East's top team thanks to contributions from up and down its rebuilding roster, a strong outing from lone star Brook Lopez and a late-fourth-quarter run that the gassed and overwhelmed Cavs just couldn't match. Cleveland falls to 51-21, two games ahead of the Toronto Raptors in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs have 10 games remaining, while Toronto has 12 left on its slate.
On a night where LeBron made his first 10 shots and had 30 points, six rebounds and five assists in just three quarters ...
... the rest of the Cavaliers just couldn't come through. Kyrie Irving missed 16 of his 22 field-goal attempts, including seven of eight 3-point tries. Kevin Love shot 5-for-14, and missed all five of his long balls. Non-LeBron Cavs produced just 65 points on 26-for-73 shooting; even against one of the worst teams in the NBA, that's just not going to be good enough to win you games very often.
While the Nets are one of the league's lesser lights, Brooklyn earned this win, playing with an edge, an energy and a consistency of effort that informed the Cavs early that they were in for a fight, and that allowed them to persevere through LeBron's third-quarter scoring spree.
"The energy was definitely way up," Nets interim coach Tony Brown said after the game. "Our intensity was up. We had a lot more bounce on the court than we normally have."
The only quarter in which Cleveland outscored Brooklyn was the third, with LeBron account for 17 of the Cavs' 34 points (15 of his own, two on an assist leading to a Timofey Mozgov layup). The Nets responded to that by hanging around until the midway point of the fourth, then ripping off a 14-0 run over a deciding six-minute stretch, capped by an and-one layup by Lopez, who finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
"Brook led us down the stretch, made a couple of huge buckets, especially the last one for the and-one," Brown said. "But more than anything, we got defensive stops. I mean, they missed shots, and we were able to control the game from there.
"You can't pitch a shutout against that team. They've got too many quality players. But I think more than anything, we were able to get back to shooters on the perimeter. When they'd run the pick-and-roll and we had to help on the roller, we were able to get back out to the shooters. Maybe they'd take the shot but it was contested, or when they'd try to put it on the floor, we were doing a better job of scrambling and closing out and defending the dribble."
The Cavs went 0-for-10 during that game-tilting stretch. James took only two shots in the fourth quarter, missing both; Irving went 0-for-6.
"I don't think we started the game with a lot of energy," James said after the game, according to Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press. "I think we expended a lot coming back in that third quarter to try to get back in the game, which we did, and then we had a rough start to the fourth quarter, kind of gave them momentum back."
Before the game, J.R. Smith (eight points on 3-for-10 shooting) said he felt the Cavs were "getting to understand this is the time to start buckling up tight," and were "moving in the right direction." After the loss, in which the Cavs shot just nine free throws and forced only nine turnovers while committing 15 of their own, James sounded unsure his team had any sense of direction at all.
Maybe the conventional wisdom is right, and the Cavs are simply good enough to keep sputtering every few games and still beat everyone else in the East four times in seven tries. But for a franchise, and a franchise player, that has made it perfectly clear that anything less than a championship is unacceptable, Cleveland's inability to lock into the kind of "many hands make light work" groove it found heading into last year's postseason — and, on top of that, the ongoing struggle to get stops, even against a poor offensive team like Brooklyn — must remain confounding, and at least a bit troubling.
On Thursday afternoon, I wondered whether the potential impact of James' consistently curious comments really matter at all so long as he remains a full-fledged destroyer of worlds. Well, he wrecked Barclays for 36 minutes on Thursday, and the Cavs still took an L. Which begs the question: if LeBron being awesome by his lonesome isn't enough to beat the Nets in March, what the hell happens if the rest of the Cavs don't follow his lead come April and May?
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