When something goes as afoul as it did for the Cavaliers last night, you lance it, treat with a heavy course of antibiotics, and pray it doesn’t spread. Johnnie Cochran couldn’t defend what happened out there. Hell, Mark David Chapman had a better defense than the Cavaliers last night, at least he was crazy. Best they could do is tired and bored.
Playing an Indiana team fighting for a playoff spot proved to be a step up in intensity from the half-injured, going nowhere Milwaukee Bucks. Playing their second game in as many nights, and minus LeBron, the Cavaliers couldn’t match it. They did play a solid half of offense, a sign of late-season consistency that’s doesn’t offer much solace given the 70 points they surrendered.
We’ve been yammering like a loon about this team’s love of three pointers. So imagine our delight when they made 11-16 in the first quarter but only took 4 threes, making half, and shooting 10 free throws.
Now imagine our dismay when they went 6-25 from the boundary the rest of the way. They did keep attacking, getting 24 free throws. It’d be nice sometimes if they wouldn’t get so carried away with the 3. They were 18-33 inside the arc.
The offense helped make the game look closer than it was. The Pacers shot 62% in the first half, and while the Cavs were able to chill that down to 49% the Wine and Gold were helpless before their long distance sortees, surrendering 48 of the Pacers 123 points from beyond the arc (16-31).
After tying a record set by the Warriors for consecutive games with 10+ threes (12), The Cavaliers long-distance futility was predictable, like Leonard Hofstadter saying something science (/) fiction and Penny misunderstanding or guessing “Star Wars” (probably correctly). Cue the laugh track.
Only there’s nothing particularly funny about the Cavaliers struggles if you’ve watched all season. We wish we could laugh. They’re as boring as a drug you take too regularly and sad like the stucco ceiling pattern you can explain in exquisite detail.
We want to believe this will all be erased in the postseason like that night your friends say you stripped down to your boxers and danced on a Fuddruckers table but you remember less than Schultz knows. (“I know nothing!”)
Deep in your heart you fear the Cavaliers are the friend you’ll never arrange to meet at the movies. There’s always this sneaking suspicion, you’ll get a call outside the ticket window, five minutes ago they fell on the sidewalk or accidentally inhaled Anthrax, and now they’re dead quicker that the kid at the end of A Separate Peace. (Belated Spoiler Alert.)
Hopefully someone sympathetic has explained the mortality of playoff teams. In the Eastern Conference they lose to LeBron James, but in the darkest hearts of some observers they’ll confess this fear this team’s unwillingness to play hard all game long will one day land them in a crevice so deep even LeBron can’t pull them out. (See, Mo Williams I: Phantom Menace.)
With this thought in mind it felt foreboding to have spoken with Richard Jefferson about the team’s focus versus Milwaukee. We noted that Iman Shumpert had made the postgame observation that everyone was getting comfortable with what each other does and where they’ll be, and indeed that chemistry seemed evident in Tuesday’s game.
Richard Jefferson, who has a couple NBA years and 20 more playoff and regular season games than LeBron James, has seen enough to be unimpressed. His look was the visual equivalent of the dismissive “pffftttt” noise.
“It’s not a matter of doing it for one game or doing it for a few games. It’s how consistently you do it,” said Jefferson. “Because in the playoffs you have to do it every single night. You have to do it for every quarter, every minute. If you have one bad quarter against a high level team, you’re never going to recover.”
Jefferson was one of the beneficiaries of James’ absence, scoring 10 points on 3-7 shooting, scoring 3 of 4 at the line, hitting a three, getting a couple steals and an assist without a turnover. We saw a couple disparaging tweets about Jefferson’s play last night, which we can only explain as the encroachment of Mirkwood. Between Kyrie, Love and somehow RJ, the trolls are nearly thick as at 2 a.m.
He sounded a foreboding note a moment later.
“It was great we did it for one game against a, uh, Milwaukee team that was banged up, that’s on their last leg,” he said. “We did a good job against Atlanta and even for the most part against Charlotte but we have to continue to do it. Continue to grow it until the playoffs…. it’s not about us playing well and us doing better. It’s how long we do it and can we do it consistently.”
Um. Next question.
Okay, so maybe the Cavs aren’t this super-focused, making good habits team. They focus in bursts, like teenagers with cooking. Food gets made but dishes never get done.
But that’s okay, because the intensity of the playoffs will snap them to with martial precision. Uh, right?
“That’s the hope. That’s the expectation. But being realistic, you don’t know until you get there. Until you’re in that moment you don’t know what level you’ll get to,” James Jones said. “I’m confident these guys, my guys, will step it up.
“But it’s a fine line,” he continued. “It’s a finicky beast you have to navigate when you’re talking about trying to turn it on and turn it off.”
Jones has his own theories about their chronic meet-not-exceed-the-standard level of play: “I think sometimes we fall into the trap of believing just because we’ve been here that that means something. It should help give us perspective. It’s still going to be decided by our actions every game and every day.”
We don’t have a whole lot to say. The Cavaliers played the Pacers tight the first quarter, which transpired like a track meet, each side taking it to the other’s defense. The second team – down another player with Shumpert starting in LeBron’s place – struggled to match the offense’s pace and did nothing more than the starters to limit the Pacers offense.
The Cavs were sparked by Kevin Love who plagued the Pacers like a cluster bomb, exploding all over. The Pacers were intent on trapping Kyrie in the pick-and-roll, which the Cavaliers welcomed, each trap giving Love another pick-and-pop opportunity.
He finished with 14 first quarter points. His back seized up in the third quarter and he had to come out in the third (moments after having his breakaway layup rejected like irregular slacks).
Lue said it’s happened before, but that he should be fine, he did come back into the game (ineffectually). After the game Love confirmed it isn’t any issue, though we weren’t necessarily all that reassured.
Indiana had success breaking the Cavaliers down and throwing the ball back out to the arc where CJ Miles recovered the stroke he flashed for hot moment in the Winter, shooting 6-8 from three. Solomon Hill, who Lue noted was a 22% 3-point shooter also was 3-4 from international waters. Guess that’s what they mean when they say it’s a make-miss league.
“The point of entry which is one on one, we have to do a better job of guarding the ball,” confessed Coach Tyronn Lue. “Some teams are cracking us off the dribble but we need to be pulled in on the weakside and shrinking the floor and then we need to be able to build back out.” [Which we think is coach-speak for what we just said.]
Lue refused to see a loss of momentum in this game and from the jump tried to defend the aspects in which the Cavaliers didn’t backslide. ("Look a flower! Try to ignore that ghastly cloud over Bhopal, India.")
“The positive of this game is we played well offensively. We struggled to score against this team even with LeBron. I think offensively we moved the ball we got some good shots, we ran some good stuff offensively,” Lue said, trying to focus on the half-full, or more precisely, the first-half.
“Defensively we just didn’t take the challenge tonight. I don’t think we were physical enough, I think they were able to roam free and once we tried to pick our aggressiveness up they had already made shots and they were comfortable,” he said. “Offensively we did some great things against a great defensive team. We shot 47% and scored 109 points. It’s just defensively, we took a step back.”
Naturally he was asked about the team’s struggles to perform absent LeBron, which led to a good answer, if it does still bug us how Lue always wants to talk about offense when he’s talking about defense. (It bugs us mostly because that’s how his team often plays.)
“It definitely hurts the defense [when LeBron doesn’t play] because you could be better offensively,” said Lue. “We have someone who is going to attack Paul George on the defensive end and make him play defense which takes away his legs and down on the other end it’s hard for him to make shots.”
What sucks worse than this political answer is that LeBron has been playing great defensively for almost the entire year. (He kinda took March off, but as no one had noticed his focus in play defensively all season, he probably figured 'why not phone one month in.')
Lue could have come out and unequivocally noted what the stats tell us – LeBron is the best starting defensive player in the NBA this year, a list that is topped by enough renowned defenders (Luc Mbah Moute, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard) to feel pretty good about what it’s measuring.
(Stathead Aside: We’re not fans of RPM, ESPN's Real Plus/Minus which we feel is a lot like trying to tease Dubuque’s growth from out of our nation's GDP using a series of algorithms. We trust what DFG% more narrowly measures a lot more than RPM’s overly noisy/heavily regressed approach. But we also like Chicago Dogs, so who can account for taste?)
The other amusing thing, of course, is that for all the Cavaliers coaching staff has talked about the importance of having a strong offensive attack to put opponents on their heels and force them to take it out of the basket, it sure didn’t do shit to slow down the Pacers.
We want to believe, but the Cavaliers aren’t giving anyone much to work with. It’s really not even about the loss or LeBron not playing. It’s about competing. It’s about staying aggressive. It’s about matching the other team’s intensity and physicality.
It’s important because that’s how it will be come playoff time, and these guys seem content to wing it. Habits, rabbits.
“It’s a process that’s ongoing,” said Jones. “Unfortunate for us, it’s going to take all 82 games, it seems, to be able to get. But you know that’s just something we have to embrace and embrace that’s the characteristic we have to overcome.”
We aren’t going to waste a lot of our breath bemoaning our fate. This is Cleveland. It is what it is.
“You have to be an optimist. You can’t be a pessimist, you’d stand no chance,” Jones said. “We have a ways to go. As long as we understand that we’ll be fine”
The Cavaliers will be in Chicago on Saturday. We’ll be at the United Center, offering pregame tidbits, analysis, video and snark. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read out postgame analysis here in the Scene & Heard section Sunday morning.