The Cavaliers lost again last night to the Phoenix Suns, even with the return of LeBron James after two weeks of rehab for injuries to his back and knee.
He looked refreshed, scoring 33 on an efficient 18 shots, dishing 5 assists and delivering a highlight film jam. (James only has 31 dunks through 30 games after getting 134 during last year’s 77 games, and at 6%, comprise a lower percentage of his shots than at any time in his career, a sign of the injuries that sidelined him.)
But it wasn’t enough to make up for 30 minutes of uninspired halfcourt operations and especially bad transition defense, propelled by 19 turnovers which the Suns turned into an astounding 27 points. (You’d like to see their conversion rate at least 8 points lower, the margin of the game.) New center Timofey Mozgov, James and Kyrie Irving (8!!) were responsible for 17 of them.
As they’ve done so often this season, they showed zero defense presence at the outset, allowing Phoenix to get its groove on to the tune of 69% first quarter shooting. When the lead ballooned to 17 points, they finally shook themselves from their defensive torpor and actually began challenging the Suns physically. They began passing the ball, and voila, they closed the gap and even took the lead, before falling back into the same bad habits.
Afterwards there was grumbling about Coach David Blatt, some of it deserved. Kevin Love sat the last 16 minutes of the game, beginning for the most part with the team’s comeback run. It began when the lead hit 19 at 80-61 and Blatt sat his starting frontcourt of Love and Mozgov. He went with Shawn Marion, Tristan Thompson joining James Jones, J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving.
After a Jones corner jumper (shoulda been a three but apparently had his toe on line), J.R. Smith showcased his unconscious shooting skills, knocking down three triples in 75 seconds. It was just the thing to wash away the salty taste of Dion.
Smith continued the hot streak, grabbing an inbounds pass and drilling another, capping an absurd offensive outburst, 18-5, that closed the lead to 6 in the course of 180 seconds.
They brought that same energy in the fourth quarter and held a 97-96 lead with just under four minutes left before being outscored 11-3 down the stretch. For the final five minutes Coach Blatt, played a very small lineup of Thompson, James, Jones, Smith and Irving.
Coach Blatt is known to ride a hot hand, and it’s also true that Kevin Love’s +/-` was a frightening -20 in his 27 minutes. Yet Love is the only low-post threat the team has and had only committed one turnover during the game. Not that Love was likely to see the ball, since James and Irving monopolize 4th quarter shot opportunities, but at least he knows how to rebound.
If not Love, Blatt could have gone back to Shawn Marion (after a rest, he’s the one that came out at the 5-minute mark), the one guy who knows how to play playoff basketball defense, and a guy who’d grabbed 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes.
Instead Blatt stuck with James Jones who’s singular skill – shooting catch & shoot 3s– seems to be matched by his frequent mind-boggling inability to complete simple basketball plays including boxing out opponents.
Even so, Blatt could’ve easily pulled Jones for Love or Marion prior to the LeBron free throw on the three-point play that closed the Suns lead to 103-100. He didn’t. So while James ate up Markieff Morris on defense, forcing an off-balance contested jumper, James Jones let them down by failing to get his body on Suns small forward P.J. Tucker, allowing the offensive rebound that sealed the Cavs’ fate.
Markieff Morris was in fact the reason Love wasn’t in the game in the first place. Morris was so in the zone, they could’ve named it after him. After making one of his first three, Morris hit 14 out of his next 15 shots, six of them on Love, two each on James, Jones and Marion. He would miss his last three – including two with James Jones on him, so there is that.
Let’s be honest – we were just guests in Markieff Morris’ world during this three quarter stretch, as he put up a career-high 35. (The Cavs could set some kinda mark in giving guys career scoring games this year having already obliged Lou Williams, Shelvin Mack and Ryan Anderson.)
This morning ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst
reported that players talked to other players about coaching issues to other players, and that coaches around the league talk about how the team’s underachieved. Everything Blatt and James do is hyper-scrutinized, to the point where when he pushed Blatt away from a ref he was arguing with about a foul on LeBron, it was read as disrespectful, not trying to keep him from getting a technical, as he explained after the game.
People like Windhorst and PD’s Chris Fedor claim it’s more than mountains out of molehills and that people in the NBA have a gossip-addiction to LeBron and, by extension, the Cavaliers.
It hardly seems like there’s a sports season that doesn’t meet expectations where some drama doesn’t swirl around the coach. The GM just stood up for him less than a week ago, there are injured guys coming back and yet this “narrative” never dies down. Obviously, the team’s underperforming and their lack of hustle in transition and defensive rotations can be jaw-dropping. [Editor's note: Mr. Parker is on his own here. Windy's report, while juicy in all the right places, has us wondering if Blatt will survive the next two weeks.]
But the fact is that Kyrie and Kevin Love, for all their very real and ample offensive talents, have been among the very worst players at their position at playing defense. Whadya think, LeBron would knight them, Blatt would tell them they should play with passion and intensity and the light would immediately go on?
Playing defense requires constant effort and focus. None of us like to work hard all the time, and every one of us dreams of the time in our profession when we can sit back and coast along the plateau for a while. For Cavs players this happens every time they go on defense. Quite honestly, it’s an addiction that requires a new mindset.
Believe it or not, it’s getting there. Last night on several occasions, Kyrie Irving closed out wide-open guys, on two occasions getting there quick enough to dissuade the player from shooting. They looked as surprised as me. Kyrie’s manner on defense is typically that of a straggler, his heels dragging behind – but last night he moved with purpose on defense.
Not all the time. It doesn’t happen all at once. There will be LOTS of backsliding. But they don’t sound fractured. Love, James and Irving all talk a good game about sacrifice, competing and learning to play defense.
The talk is 500 times better than the walk, but when LeBron is truly leading them, they look willing to queue up behind. JR Smith for all his remorseless gunner-warts is much more defensively aware than Dion and deadly on catch & shoot 3s, as his 8-14 rate from long-range suggests.
There are a lot of things to be positive about with this team, if none of them quite as glaring as their continued issues with turnovers, transition defense and ball movement.
They’re inter-related too, because good ball movement yields better shots and less long rebounds. It also tends to keep the floor better balanced making it easier to get back on defense. (Note to Cavaliers players: That doesn’t mean you don’t have to run.)
Like a new cohabitation, it just seems like there are a million, easily correctable things wrong, many of which could be corrected simply with some energy, passion and attention, something you would think they could bring to every game since it’s just a matter of digging inside, not actually producing results.
But playing defense and communicating with teammates is a lot harder than playing offense – which for both the Post-LeBron and Pre-Return Cavs meant a lot of dribbling and driving – for which teammates are optional.
You can’t play defense without relying on other players and if our willingness to pass is any indication (a mere 16 assists on 36 baskets), we’ve not passed psychologist Erik Erickson’s first stage of psychosocial development: Trust vs. Mistrust. And that runs from the players down to the Coach.
But isn’t it hard to pin shot selection like this on Blatt? Except he’s LeBron and has the discretion to do what he wants, and as bad as this shot is (it’s Dion bad), it almost went down. Of course, if the Cavaliers got into their offense quicker instead of frequently walking the ball up the court, they’d have more time to pass and run the offense – were they so inclined.
Some of you may feel the only way to get the players to compete is by firing the coach, but that sets an awfully bad precedent, and seems to only reinforce the bad behavior by making it effective. And what if that doesn’t work? When do the players have to accept accountability? Or will be just be like the Browns and replace our coaches annually like we do our quarterbacks?
Further, Tyronn Lue, whatever his interpersonal qualities, has never coached an NBA game, which isn’t the pedigree you’re seeking for a playoff contender. While Blatt may lack NBA experience, he’s coached on the globe’s biggest stages outside the Association, winning the European Title and a Bronze in the Olympics, each time with far less talent than his competitors. (But probably more will, certainly more than these Cavs.)
This team has its issues. So do marriages. But a rocky start doesn’t necessitate a fiery crash, however much it might seem that way. While at 19-20 this looks a lot more like the Titanic than the Apollo program, but it’s not like it has to ship yet.
The Eastern Conference is like the significant other that’s always running late, affording you a chance to pull it all together at the last moment and still enter looking like $81,604,221 (or more after extensions kick in).
That said, the NBA is full of professionals whose job is to kick you when you’re down and ruthlessly exploit your weaknesses. There’s no room for self-pity and bellyaching. The Cavs just need to keep working at it.
No one’s suggesting it’s pretty to watch, but like a middle-aged Hollywood actress in the dressing room, the point is to focus on what a little time, some hairspray and makeup can do, not how bad things look going in.