King-less Cavs Bow, Faceplant before Wizards

Life, it’s been noted, is like a wheel. It’s not just how the world turns upon a spindle, each revolution adding layers of history, but how the view changes from WINNING to HIV+, and from beating the Thunder on their home floor to losing three out of four, while the coach is passing off a brutal beating as little more than a blip.

Sure the Cavaliers were missing the straw that stirs the drink, and quite possibly, assembles the ingredients, manufactures it and arranges the drink’s distribution. The Cavaliers starters barely looked capable of filling out their W-4s without the assistance of LeBron James on Sunday.

They fell behind the Washington Wizards by 30 – before an improbable garbage time comeback to something approaching respectability (113-99) led by a D-League signee on the first day of a 10-day contract. Jordan McRae enjoyed his Cavaliers debut much more than his mates, who followed their recent pattern of playing hard out of the gate and faltering like clockwork midway through the first quarter.

Only they never pulled it back together, allowing 15-8 and 18-12 leads turn into a 35-28 Wizards advantage at the end of the first. It was 63-54 at half time and when the Wizards Otto Porter hit three triples in a row to start the third quarter – yes, that’s right, the same guy beat them three on consecutive plays for nine points in 64 seconds – the Cavaliers just seemed to give up.

Forty-eight hours after allowing the Raptors to shoot 10-10 from the field over the first eight minutes of the second quarter, the Cavs soiled another set of 1500-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.

The Wine and Pyrite allowed the Wizards to sink 10 of their first 11 shots in the third, including four layup/dunks and five threes. After seven minutes and a 25-9 onslaught the Cavs were down by 25. It was festival seating at Riverfront Stadium and the Cavaliers were standing between the Wizards and the Who.

But Cavs Coach Tyronn Lue wasn’t letting anyone see him sweat.

“Kyle Lowry sort of willed [Toronto] to win, but outside of that I think we’ve been playing good basketball,” offered Lue, channeling his best Bobby McFerrin while defending the play of a team that’s lost three out of four.

It’s sort of hard to blame Lue for the loss in that once the wheels started to come off, nobody on the floor seemed willing to step up. It sparked several great quotes from Austin Carr who spent the rest of the broadcast cratering the court with Truth Bombs.

“Everyone’s looking to the other guy,” Carr said, noting the dysfunctional “help” defense. “You have to [try to] do it yourself THEN look to the other guy.”

A little later he warned, “by the time they meet again on Friday the Cavaliers may not be leading the Eastern Conference. Maybe that will give them some inspiration.”

It went far beyond the teams’ tendency to turn defensive mea culpas into a Greek Chorus. Instead of bobbleheads, they could give away Cavaliers players with spring-loaded elbows for tapping their chests, “my bad.”

“Today was one that was very uncharacteristic of us,” Kevin Love said afterwards. “We need to lock in sometimes. We’re so talented that we’re able to get away with a lot of stuff on the offensive end. We might put up a lot of points but when we play on the other side of the ball we’re so much better.”

Despite the move up to second option with LeBron out, Love only scored 12 points, all in the first half, and secured five rebounds all in the first quarter. It was that kind of day.

LeBron’s Absence Leaves a Mark

It was bad. But it is only one game. It resembles several other games, so it seems like more, but it’s only one loss. Some will argue that this proves the Cavaliers aren’t championship material. It does nothing of the sort.

However it does highlight the team’s inconsistent defensive rotations, transition defense and effort. At times they seemed less like a team than hired guns, looking askance of each other rather than taking a hard look in the mirror. Sometimes they don’t even seem to think there’s an issue.

“I’m not going to finger point on one particular thing because about a week ago [we beat the Thunder],” Irving said. “We still feel like we’re a great defensive team and we just have that inconsistency going from game to game.”

You know how they say admitting you have a problem is the first step?

Even LeBron, who’s absence sort of sparked this catastrophe doesn’t escape the spotlight. Obviously he is the glue holding this team together, but his behavior sometimes doesn’t seem very conducive to a good locker room. Not that we doubt his heart’s in the right place, we just question his way of motivating his teammates.

This is armchair philosophizing and is worth little more than the napkin it’s scribbled on so take if for what it’s worth: It seems like LeBron is so skilled that he sort of expects everyone to have his skills and vision. As if Timofey Mozgov just concentrated, he’d catch more balls, and if Kyrie Irving just lifted his head he’d find more open teammates.

There’s a well-remarked psychological blindspot known as the Dunning-Kruger effect whereby those who are very good at things tend to assume things come that easily to others, or with similar effort. (The corollary is that people who are not skilled in the least tend to overestimate their mastery.)

We can’t help but wonder if some of the team are upset at the way LeBron responds to their failures. We’ve seen how he burns eye holes through the back of Mozgov’s skull when he misses passes, and how he’ll jump over Tristan’s help defense at halftime right in front of the scorer’s desk. Hell, he’s walked off the floor unsubstituted because he was pissed about a bad pass leading by more than twenty. Tact isn’t his strong suit.

Yesterday afternoon he left the bench with five minutes left in the game and went to the locker room. Apparently he’d seen enough. He wasn’t dressed so maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s hardly a vote of solidarity for his mates. “I’ve seen enough,” isn’t overly sympathetic, and certainly clashes with his suggestions that he never lets himself get too high or too low about a game.

We know he doesn’t run plays when he doesn’t want to and doesn’t listen to his coach when he doesn’t want to. That double-standard might not sit comfortably with his teammates. Certainly in the wake of Blatt’s dismissal, it came out that some were pissed that nobody called out James’ mistakes in film sessions, but, we were told, Tyronn Lue did.

Yesterday afternoon we discovered that the regime change has apparently done little to change this, even though this was putatively why ex-Coach David Blatt was fired.

“He didn’t want to come out,” Lue said, explaining his failure to sub LeBron out during the entire second half of the loss to the Raptors. “I should’ve got him out, but he didn’t want to come out. As the game started down the stretch getting close I was I’m going to get you out for a couple minutes. He said ‘No!’ He went crazy. That kind of has something to do with sitting him today.”

If you’re a fan of cruise ships and European vacations, then this is a sad day for you because the Honeymoon’s officially over. Tyronn Lue is now 11-6, much worse than the team’s 30-11 record when Blatt bought it. Don't let this bum you out too much. Blatt started the season 13-7 and then won 14 of 16 (before the week he was fired).

Presumably, Lue can get the team over this rough stop and help it run off another 14 of 16 streak. But the fact that the team continues to display the same behavior doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence.

The Game

We’re not here to dump on LeBron. He’s the only reason this team has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the NBA Finals and its got to burn his ass raw that with all the talent assembled here, they frequently regress into a ball-hogging, continuity-less crew that only plays one-side of the ball.

Heck it frustrates us, and our basketball legacy isn’t hanging on Kevin Love’s help rotations or the backcourt’s ability to stop penetration. You maybe thought we were going to assail Kyrie Irving’s defense? We aren’t going to defend it, but he’s been an unfair whipping boy on the defensive end the last couple games.

We noted some writers giving Irving the business for Lowry’s 43 on Friday, and John Wall’s 21 points yesterday. While Irving’s not a good on-ball defender and maybe is even a bad one, Lue’s picked up on that and doesn’t keep Irving on the ballhandler. Delly and Shump have helped Irving handle the assignment the last two nights and they didn’t fare significantly better.

This could improve come playoff time. Delly and Shump are injured. Delly’s hamstring hinders his pursuit of quick guards while Shumpert’s shoulder must run a gauntlet of screens all night long. On some occasions we thought we saw him wince, as when he was hit by a hard Gortat screen.

Shumpert and Love combined for 13 of the team’s 28 first quarter points then scored a collective 11 points the rest of the way. Love didn’t grab a single rebound in his 15 minutes of play after the first quarter.

Speaking after the game, Lue credited Richard Jefferson and Timofey Mozgov with bringing the proper energy and intensity all game long. “That’s about it,” he said.

We’d also single out J.R. Smith who was flying around the floor on defense with as much intensity as any two of his mates. (That’s also how he got two first quarter fouls, leaving the floor just as things went South. Seriously.)

On defense the Cavaliers were a mess. The Wizards push the ball after everything, and despite the record aren’t a bad team. (Lots of injuries all season, especially to key scorer Bradley Beal.) The Wizards handed the Cavs their first home loss in December by doing just what they did yesterday afternoon – push the ball at all times.

The Cavs couldn’t get stops all night. They were getting beat up the court in transition and beat off the dribble, when Washington didn’t finish at the rim, they found shooters around the arc. The Wiz have the 10th best 3pt percentage in the NBA, right behind #9 Cleveland. As you can see from the shot chart, they got whatever they wanted.

Kyrie finished with 28 points on 9-20 shooting, with four threes, 6-6 from the line and six assists and four turnovers. But the stats sound much better than his game. The team only had 3 secondary assists after getting 10 against the Raptors. There was very little ball movement, and once things went south the team turned into 3-chuckers.

They went 4-19 from the arc in the second half while shooting 10-20 from the field. We’ve run out of breath for all we’ve questioned the team’s reliance on the three, so we’ll give it a rest. That’s not to say they’re not open, the team shot 15-41 on open shots, which probably isn’t bad given how many were threes. They finished 9-29 from 3, and feel too often this team settles for an open three when a better shot is possible.

We’re also not sure the team understands or believes that you can advance the ball faster and even more efficiently by passing than you can by dribble drives. Part of that is the offensive philosophy, which relies heavily on drive-and-kick 3s, but so does Golden State, but they regularly pass up good shots for better shots.

“In the Atlanta game toward the end of the second quarter,” Warriors center Andrew Bogut told noted Cavs-hater Bill Simmons during a recent podcast. “And [Anderson Varejao] looks at me and was like, ‘Man, this is so different to where I was. You guys move the ball so well. Everyone passes up a good shot to get a great shot.’ And it kind of hits you that this is normal to us.”

David Blatt’s Schadenfreude

Cleveland ledges are growing overcrowded. The bloom is off the 38-year old rookie coach, and it’s starting to seem like the Lue-rning curve’s less linear than logarithmic: He may not get over that big hump this year.

The vaunted offense has been held beneath 100 in each of their last three losses, and in five of the six losses under Lue. Now it is worth noting that the Blatt-led Cavs were also held beneath 100 in losses to Washington, Toronto, Miami, Detroit and Chicago as Lue was, in addition to San Antonio and Golden State. (However Blatt’s Cavs won 9 games where they scored under 100, thanks to their defense. Lue’s won once when his team was held below 100.)

When the offense isn’t working this team doesn’t take it well. They get discouraged and it bleeds into their defensive effort. Yesterday was an extreme case, where it was quite obvious in the third quarter that they just surrendered.

It was so apparent that Lue finally made wholesale substitutions to get the offending players off the court. Kyrie actually begged to go back in and Lue put him back in a few minutes later.

We’re not sure what to make of Irving’s unwillingness to sit or the fact that Love put up no fight. In another kind of awful aside on Irving, he chose not to take a halfcourt shot at the end of the third then made it after the horn. (*Sad Trombone*) 
We want to be clear with something that should’ve been clear long before now. It isn’t all or even most Lue’s fault. This team has issues and they weren’t Blatt’s fault. Indeed, the same things that happened under Blatt are happening to Lue, even beyond James’ unwillingness to sit in Toronto.

Just last night LeBron took the game-winning shot against the Raptors and whiffed on a three. When Love almost threw the ball away we were reminded of Game #4 in Chicago, when LeBron famously “scratched” the play and Blatt caught so much heat. How could he not let the best player in the world shoot. Who is that stupid?

Since that shot, LeBron’s good buddies [/snark] at ESPN pulled out this damning stat about LeBron’s success taking final shots. Over his ten year career he is 5-47 on game-tying or game-winning shots in the final 5 seconds.
What incredible deference by Blatt to trust LeBron – on a night when he was 9-29 before that. Blatt listened and trusted in a guy who hadn’t succeeded in that role, whatever the popular perception. Trusted his coaching career in some sense, because if they lose in the second round to Chicago does he make it through the summer? Ironic it did him no good, and only served to stoke the Idiot Blatt meme through the media. (Yeah I’m talking about you, tools.)

Final Analysis

As James' skills slowly erode, it becomes more important for him to delegate his scoring responsibilities above all. His scoring efficiency is already receding – though we wonder if it would come back up under lower usage. With Kyrie able to shoulder a significant portion of the scoring load, James is better situated to be a facilitator.

That’s been Lue’s plan, except that LeBron still likes to take over at the end of the game. It would be better if he could involve other people and here is where we wonder about the personnel.

We like Kyrie but he’s not a guy who necessarily gets the ball moving. He’d be great playing off another combo guard with more point guard skills, and that’s why Delly looks so good out there with the starters. Suddenly LeBron and Delly are facilitating and Love passes when he gets the ball.

Delly’s injury has set this back by making it hard for him to cover point guards like he’d like. He’s never been the quickest guy, getting by with his physicality and grit, but the half-step he’s lost to injury seems to have made it impossible for him to offer significant upgrade on Kyrie. (He is more physical than Kyrie which may be enough to make a difference.) It’s also seems to have slightly diminished his ability/willingness to drive.

We keep being told that the team’s going to work on their defense, but the offense continues to go in-and-out like their focus and sometimes effort. They want to score more and quicker to get teams on their heels, but when they miss and don’t run clock, their defense ends up on the floor a lot more, and it’s not very good right now.

The new defensive coach Mike Longabardi then said something slightly disturbing and entirely emblematic at half. The guy in charge of defense laid the problem on the offense, saying “our offense has to be our best defense.”

Later Lue suggested they weren’t scoring enough to make John Wall take the ball out from under the basket, and that was allowing them to get up-court.

We couldn’t help but think, “Remember when the idea was getting stops, not scoring so they couldn’t run you clear out of the gym?”

The Cavaliers have to get back to being a good defense first and foremost, if they plan to go anywhere in June but fishing. They're so skilled, it seems silly to worry so much about offense, given the plentiful issues on the other end.

The Eastern Conference has been getting the slag for several years now, long enough for it to get better without popular consensus catching up. This year both Celtics and Raptors have proven they can beat the Cavs.

Sure Cleveland plays some defense, in spurts, just like offensive execution. But for whatever reason, they struggle to do this for 48 minutes and from game-to-game. This problem didn’t originate with Lue, but it hasn’t improved either.

The inconsistency makes this a tough team to read. As down as you might be on them, the talent’s undeniable. Everyone’s focus will turn up in the playoffs, and that might help the defensive effort at times.

On the other hand it’s going to make it much tougher to run and get those easy transition scores come playoff time. Therein lies the danger of what Longabardi suggests.

Offense will be that much harder to come by in the playoffs. This team should be looking to create offense with their defense. They had 11 steals against the Thunder, but, again, haven’t replicated that energy since.

There are still 24 more games to get better. Just getting closer to the playoffs should help and so will more practices. The team found another level in the playoffs last year, there’s reason to trust they can do it this year. However they were playing much much better this time last year and had palpable offensive chemistry.

Even if it didn't fully manifest until sometime after Love’s injury, the confidence and camaraderie that Finals run built is AWOL this year. You don’t have to be Anderson Varejao to suss that. But seasons can change quickly for the better or the worse. The Cavs have special players, they just need to figure out how to behave more like spokes in a wheel and less like porcupine spines you know where.

Last week they were heroes, this morning they’re zeroes. At some point they’ll self-sort, hopefully according to their talent and not their inconsistency.

The Cavs play the surprising Indiana Pacers tonight. Despite losing David West and Roy Hibbert, they’re retooled, and currently sit sixth in the Conference, a half-game above the eighth place logjam and just two games behind the fourth place Heat.

The Cavs outlasted the Pacers in Indianapolis in overtime late last month, then lost their next two. The Pacers have also lost 3 of 4 and are trying to hold onto their playoff spot as the race tightens.

We’ll be at the Q posting video, commentary and snark. Follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our postgame analysis Tuesday morning here on the Heard and Scene blog.