For most of 2015-16, it was assumed that the Cleveland Cavaliers just needed 82 games to get it right. A regular season span to work in, iron out the kinks, and hit the postseason healthy.
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Well, we thought the same last year before the team’s postseason was scuttled by injuries. The hope this season, especially following former coach David Blatt’s dismissal, was that LeBron James would make some fearsome transition late in the playoffs once things started to click – as he did with his Miami Heat down 3-2 to the Boston Celtics in the 2012 Eastern finals. Now, after a few weeks watching a series of Eastern also-rans tussle from afar, the Cavs have a new threat on their hands.
That threat is coming from the inside. LEBRON JAMES UNFOLLOWED THE CAVALIERS ON TWITTER:
LEBRON UNFOLLOWED THE CAVS TWITTER TODAY pic.twitter.com/haz6AWWYhH
— Alex (@kanyecobain) March 21, 2016
Too late, we made it a thing I suppose. Maybe James was just tired of his beautiful mind being bombarded with annoying Direct Messages from whomever runs the team’s account. Maybe he never even followed the account.
Naw, the real threat is looking rather scary these days. The Toronto Raptors are back just one game with 13 games left and a passable, if road-heavy, schedule ahead of them. The Cavs’ schedule is easier, but that hasn’t stopped the leaks as the team’s defense has taken a dive.
On Monday, after it was announced that LeBron James would miss his first shootaround is nearly two years as a re-born Cavalier, new coach Tyronn Lue took the blame for a D that has gone badly sour under his watch. From Joe Vardon at Cleveland.com:
"I take full blame for that," Lue said. "We're trying to do some different things and now we just got to get back to the basics and get back to our foundation."
The Cavs hold a 1-game lead over Toronto for first in the East with 13 games to go. Lue said there is time to reconstruct the defense because what they're returning to they "did it all last year."
"We did it the first half of this season and it's just getting back to the basics and doing what we're accustomed to doing," Lue said.
The team showcased a rather porous middle on September as the Heat carved them up to the tune of 122 points in the loss – the team is now down to a very un-championship-esque 14th in defense. Lue has been rather, um, cavalier with how he doles out minutes of late as well: Kevin Love has seen some time at center (successful time, though against Orlando), Kyrie Irving hasn’t gotten to dominate the ball as much and LeBron James, as always, is all over the place.
What’s now a concern is not so much how the various position minutes are filled, but how many overall minutes these various important contributors are going to take in between now and the season’s end on April 13.
"We definitely want the No. 1 seed if we can get it, but I think we have to rest our guys also," Lue said after the team's shootaround Monday morning. "I think health going into the playoffs is more important than the seeding. If we're fortunate enough to get the No. 1 seed, it will be great for us. But if not, then we just got to play through it.
"I think all championship teams have to win on the road anyway. So, [the No. 1 seed is] important to us, but also being healthy going into the playoffs is more important."
When LeBron James comes through with similar statements midseason – as he did last year – we applauded for being honest. Lue’s bit of candor isn’t wrong, by any stretch, but the timing of it is curious. Even when every contending team is being faced with the same sort of questions (through the media but also internally) in this part of the NBA season. Hell, the Warriors had to field these questions back in November.
Lue’s also not wrong about championship teams having to pull wins on the road. Cleveland briefly lost home court advantage to Chicago in the second round last season and entered the Conference finals without home court advantage prior to turning those deficits around while working away from Ohio, and the team took a game in Golden State during the Finals.
Still, at the risk of falling back on silly intangibles, momentum is a thing. Even if it takes over a month for the Cavaliers to get a shot at the assumed opponent in Toronto following the end of the regular season, the Raptors storming back to grab the top seed in the East could act as an embarrassment.
(Even if the Cavs didn’t have the top seed last year.)
(Even if all it takes is a Game 1 win to wrest home court advantage away, as poor Raptor fans know all too well.)
Three more weeks, to get it half-right. One last warning sound.
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