Cleveland went into Portland still aching from their Christmas Day loss to the Warriors, and almost immediately ate canvas. Whether it was hangover from the Golden State loss, overconfidence, exhaustion, or dead batteries in their Medical Alert bracelet – the Cavs never got back up, falling 105-76 to the Trailblazers.
The listless, ineffectual display put on by the Wine & Gold made Portland look like Globetrotters and Allen Crabbe like Allen Iverson. If you missed the beginning of the game, you missed the contest’s only competitive moments.
It was tied at 3 when the Blazers went on a 10-1 run, featuring 7 points by usual shooting guard C.J. McCollum, playing the point in place of an injured Damian Lillard. Matthew Dellavedova hit a floater with seven minutes left cutting the lead to 13-6 that was followed by a 19-4 run during which the Blazers hit 8 of 11 shots and Cleveland made four turnovers. Suddenly they were down 32-10.
They didn’t show much fight the rest of the way. The Cavs had a season low 16 shots at the rim, the 9 shots they made there accounting for nearly a third of their baskets. That’s indicative of the team’s tendency to settle for jump shots. Nor was there any defensive intensity. Portland didn’t make a turnover in the entire first half.
“We made them feel way too comfortable,’ said Richard Jefferson after the game. “They had zero turnovers and I think there were only 5 FTs shot [in the first half]. That means we weren’t aggressive and we didn’t foul them and we didn’t make them uncomfortable. And that’s pretty much what our defense is predicated on.”
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
The offense was awful, particularly in the first quarter when they shot 5-20 and made seven turnovers. With Kyrie Irving sitting out the second of the back-to-back for now, it fell to Kevin Love and LeBron James who shot 2-10 collectively in the first, half their shots (and buckets) coming from behind the arc.
Given who poorly the Cavaliers have been shooting from three, it might’ve been advisable to get more shots inside and hope to draw some fouls. Instead they took more 3s. While they followed their 1-6 first by going 4-8 on threes in the second, they were 3-11 inside the arc and made 3 more turnovers.
“We didn’t take particularly good shots in the first half. We took a lot of hurried shots we got behind fast and tried to make it all up at one time,” said Coach David Blatt after the game. “That forced us to play out of any kind of rhythm. We really didn’t do anything right in the first half.”
This tendency to play hero ball has been a continuing affliction of the Cavaliers. When the team starts to get down and miss shots the ball starts moving less, not more. Guys try to do it all themselves instead, often with three-point shots, rather than attacking and looking for their teammates when the defense rotates.
This falls on LeBron as well. When the team struggles to score, the offense stops, regressing into one-on-one play and stagnant post-up.
While he actually shoots better when he takes 7+ dribbles (44% FG) than when he makes 2-6 dribbles (43%), LeBron’s ball dominance seems to cause offensive movement to stop. Players seem afraid to flash into the lane, lest they drag their man into LeBron’s path to the bucket. The result is a bunch of guys standing around waiting and watching, exacerbating the team’s movement issues.
“If you’re not going to move the ball and you’re going to take those kind of shots they were taking, you better make them,” said Cavaliers announcer Austin Carr after the game, referring to the team’s selfish, “hero ball” offense.
It was basically a total zero on both sides of the court. The team was “lacking in energy, lacking in approach and flat as all get out,” said Blatt afterwards neatly summarizing their issues versus Portland.
Just Blame the Schedule
Obviously there was a big mental letdown after the Warriors loss, and the always-tough road back-to-backs, but that’s little excuse for the lack of effort, as Blatt was quick to point out.
“I’m sure the travel and the back-to-back and the hangover from yesterdays game had something to do with it… but there is no excuse I can give you that is reasonable,” he said. “This was a bad night plain and simple. What that means is what we’re going to do the next day or next game. That’s the important thing I think.”
Indeed a game like this is pretty much pointless in analyzing. Like some Western movie tough guy might quip, the Cavaliers were dead before the first buzzer sounded. They didn’t come ready to play and in the NBA that’s suicide.
“I think Damian Lillard, him not paying disarmed us a little bit. Then Allen Crabbe and the rest of their team came out and played a great first quarter. We struggled a little bit to hit shots, and from there it was just uphill,” said Jefferson. “For us it’s about coming out early and imposing our will on them as a team. The coaches gave us a pretty good gameplan. We just didn’t have the energy we needed to and once they got going and guys started hitting shots, things got easier on them.”
This was the fourth consecutive game the Cavaliers have shot below 40%, after three such games all year prior, none of them consecutive. Those include games against the Knicks and Sixers, so it can't be laid on the road, back-to-backs or the competition.
The offense looks like crap, and both James and Blatt offered the same explanation: New Guys, New Lineups. (Note this same excuse also came up against the Knicks.)
“For eight weeks we build chemistry with who was playing, everyone takes coach’s rotations down. Now we have to get back to that; we have no rhythm,” James offered.
Blatt concurred. “I remember talking in preseason and saying it’s going to be tough in the beginning without all our guys or when guys are coming in and out. And we’re going to go through some adjustments… now we’re kind of going through what we might’ve gone through in the preseason and we just have to fight through it.”
The fight part was the part that was missing in Portland. “The one thing you can always do is play hard and play right,” Blatt said. “I don’t think in the first half we did that.”
Bad Habits Must Die
After the game James said it just need to be tossed away, and to some extent it must be. As Blatt said, “we didn’t suddenly become a bad team.” They may not have become a bad team overnight but they have developed some bad habits. Here’s our short-list of four bad Cavaliers habits in need of reform.
Ultimately, it’s just one game. While the Cavaliers have performed quite poorly, especially on offense over the last four games, it’s hard to believe that offense is going to be a longstanding issue for this team. Intuitively, it seems that Blatt/James are probably right; integrating Iman Shumpert and Irving into the rotation is throwing off all the unit chemistry built over the first 25 games.
While it seems strange that the effect should be so dramatic, the offensive downturn tracks to Irving’s return. However, while the offense can be excused somewhat for its lack of continuity, the defense doesn’t get off so easily.
The kind of transition we saw against the Warriors (allowing just 14 points to a team that averages 21), should be standard against every team. Most often it isn’t. Similarly the defensive fire they brought against the Warrior should be a regular feature, not the kind of front-running, defend-if-we’re-making-shots attitude that’s crept into the Cavs play at times.
We saw how well the team can play when their hands our out and in the passing lanes against Philadelphia. They were averaging almost 8 steals a game in the 11 games prior to the road trip. They’ve gotten 10 the last two games. They need to get back to that. The team’s focus isn’t as strong as it needs to be on either side of the ball, but there is time to change that. In that direction, this game needs to be left in their Portland hotel room like Gideon’s bible.
“You throw this one in the trash and get ready for Phoenix,” said James. “We haven’t shot the ball the last two games well. Tonight we didn’t defend very well. Offensively we’re in a funk right now. We just have to find a rhythm.”
They’ll get their next chance Monday against the Phoenix Suns. We’ll be watching along with you, commenting and posting video on Twitter. You can follow us @CRS_1ne. You can hear us on WRUW-91.1’s Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James on Monday morning at 11 a.m. You can read our postgame analysis Tuesday in the Scene blog.