LeBron doesn't need excuses, but teammates grab for them like napkins.
It was dark, even for Brooklyn, and stormy, like your girl’s eye when you leave the seat up. The Nets were the type of team nobody would miss, should they fall down a carelessly coverless manhole or onto a shiv, maybe 13 or 14 times.
The Cavs were there to do a job. They didn’t have to like it. Well, maybe they had to have fun in the locker room after, but they didn’t have to like it.
They were looking to cut the Nets but when the lights went up, several players blinked like Bambi staring down a semi, true soft target crabmeat. It was like Jules and Vincent letting Fred and Thelma get the drop on them, then losing their psychedelic green and blue Mystery Machine van in traffic. Embarrassing
. What would Marcellus say?
Losing 104-95 to the Nets would’ve made the Cavaliers pariahs in lesser countries. We’re civilized here. We have tribunals and court-appointed public defender chimps, which not only can sign very complex legal terminology, but come very cheap at twenty bananas/day, aside from their diaper per diem.
In the aftermath, the Cavaliers were staring across the table at two foul-mouthed and malodorous detectives, ankles and wrists shackled, attempting to explain how they weren’t responsible for the dookie raining down on Cavs fans from the ceiling.
They claimed to be bystanders caught in the middle of a bad shooting night. Even the Spurs have nights like a baby’s fully-loaded drawers. Maybe they were
bystanders, the cops conceded, but that only made them more responsible. “Why didn’t you do something to stop the carnage?” they asked.
The Cavaliers muttered something about it just being one game, and it’s not even playoff time. The tall skinny cop threw his gangly arms onto the table with a thump and leaned in close enough to smell the tuna fish on his breath. He looked like a beefy stalk of corn with a square jaw, lips birthing a corpuscle of spit that splattered across the Cavs face.
“Playoffs? Playoffs? You’ll be lucky to get out of the first round,” Cornfed shouted, hand hitting the table for emphasis. “Your intensity’s for shit. Paint dries with more urgency. Your defense is flimsier than a porn plot and twice as likely to involve bending over. Don’t even get me started on the offense. Crack addicts share the rock more willingly.”
He turned and paced while his partner put his hand on his shoulder and leaned in to talk to him, pretend to calm him down. The second cop was shorter, hairier with some overambitious facial hair more appropriate to an organ grinder. “Shouldn’t you be tying a damsel to rails somewhere,” the impertinent Cavs cracked.
Stachy McStacheFace just chuckled. “Hey, this is no fun for you. We get that. You think this is fun for us? Try to understand our perspective. Well-traveled gents with a love of leather troll an entire city with promises of riches in what from here only looks like a well-oiled Ponzi scheme. What are you really intending to do with the money? A battalion of Banana boats? Maybe a giant coin-changer with wings to drop deadly dimes from above? If you tell us, we can make it easier on you.”
“Easier?” At this Cornfed spun around at lunged that the Cavs. “Listen you lazy sacks of entitlement, if I don’t see you getting back in transition again we’re putting you in Converse All-Stars and to hell with your ankles.”
The Cavs shook their head, “My sponsors-“
“YOUR BRAND?” Cornfed shook so hard, he seemed ready to pop. “Endorsements are for winners. Coffee is for winners. You sad, unfocused, underperforming, self-satisfied fools! You think you’re on top, but what have you won? Second place? Are you proud like the Buffalo Bills? Feeling very Scott Norwood? You stand on the brink of greatness but can’t leap the chasm of your selfishness and indifference.”
“I Care,” the Cavs, half rose form the chair, before Cornfed slammed him down again. “Your effort’s evidence of your indifference and we’ve got file folders of losses to lesser foes, to prove it. In fact we're knee-deep in them.”
The Cavs were just happy, they weren't already soaking in it. McStacheFace pushed Cornfed out of the interrogation room then turned around palms out in the ancient posture of supplication.
“Come on, can’t you work with me,” he offered. “There’s so much to be accomplished with just a little cooperation. We’ve done the surveillance. We’ve seen you do it. Just four days ago you dropped 38 dimes. Where’d that team go? Why do you play transition defense like you’re being sent to your room? Surely you know it’s your greatest weakness, wouldn’t you want to cover that porcelain chin?”
McStacheFace sighed, as though he’d had this very conversation too many times to count.
“It’s going to be too late to change your ways soon, if it isn’t already,” he said. “There’s still time to be the kind of team we know you are inside, but you have to drop the bad habits like a clingy lover. You think you can flip the switch, but why not work with the light on; does it take that much energy? And really, this is not a time for half-measures, but a time to remember what it is you’re fighting for, and the salvation you’ll visit upon the starving masses yearning to breathe championship air after 52 years of fetid Cuyahoga stink."
“You could be heroes,” he pleaded. “Instead of the zeroes you are this morning. It’s really all up to you.”
Brooklyn is a terrible team, but by virtue of that fact, they have a lot of players on their roster fighting to stay in the league. They brought more energy to the game from the outset. The Nets started jitterbug point Shane Larkin, whose speed can shred pick-and-roll coverage, which he did.
Still the problem wasn’t so much the first quarter. The Cavaliers actually shot well to begin the game making 11 of 18 (61%). However they had 7 turnovers in the quarter, resulting in 8 Nets points, and also gave them 8 free throws.
It remained close until midway through the second. After the Cavs tied it at 37 on a Kyrie Irving layup with seven and a half left, the Nets went on a four-minute 13-2 run to build an 11-point lead, taking a 59-49 lead into half.
The Cavaliers fought back hard in the third period, outscoring the Nets 34-21, led by 15 from James and a collective 15 from Irving and J.R. Smith. The Cavs were 14-23 in the quarter and had 8 assists, while holding the Nets below 40% shooting.
“With our backs against the wall in the third quarter we tried to come back and played hard then it just wasn’t enough,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “The third quarter we come out, we’re aggressive, we’re getting into the ball and we’re scrambling. We hold them to 21 points in the third quarter but our backs were against the wall, instead of coming out from the start of the game, focusing and playing the way we’re supposed to play.”
The Nets kept the pressure on the Cavs, who like the hero in an action film kept grasping at the out-of-reach gun/bomb-switch/knife needed to dispatch the villain without quite getting their fingers on it.
After taking a 92-90 lead on a Matthew Dellavedova three with six minutes left in the last stanza, the Cavs subbed in LeBron James and nothing happened. Almost literally. The Cavs were outscored 14-0 down the stretch before a meaningless Jordan McRae three at the buzzer.
During that stretch the Cavaliers shot 0-10, including 0-7 from 3. Meanwhile the Nets were 6-13 and grabbed 3 offensive rebounds. Tristan didn’t have a defensive rebound all period. Lue gave the Nets credit, and again partially blamed the miss/make nature of the league.
“For the most part they did a great job of packing the paint when Ky or LeBron penetrated, so they kicked out but we didn’t make shots,” Lue said. “But that’s not the biggest thing; the biggest thing for me is competing for 48 minutes. We have to play hard for 48 minutes. If we don’t things like this will continue to happen.”
Without making too many excuses, it is true that the team missed an extraordinary number of wide open shots. Not only did they make just 10 of 38 (26%) of their threes (while a much better 29-51 inside the arc); they only shot 33% on uncontested shots (14-43). They compensated by making 54% of their contested shots, but only shot 9 free throws all game, while the Nets shot 19.
While it might seem that the team should attack the rim when their long-distance shots aren’t falling, that’s just not who they are according to LeBron.
“Through the course of the game I told our guys to start trying to get to the rim, but we are what we are,” James said. “Besides myself, Kyrie and Kev there are times we don’t have many guys that are going to live in the paint, that can create and get to the paint. Obviously [Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov] those guys do a great job in the paint but maybe don’t get to the free throw line as much. We spray out to our shooters and believe in their ability to knock down shots. Kevin, JR, Shump, Delly, Channing – they had some very good looks tonight, they just didn’t go down.”
Indeed, the players he mentioned were a collective 11-37. But honestly, isn’t it a little disconcerting to be told, that for the most part the team is comfortable living and dying by the three? Ruh-Roh, Shaggy.
LeBron the Great
We probably don’t spend as much time lauding James’ talents as they deserve. Whatever deficiencies he has in leadership (and it’s still not apparent some of these guys are willing to be led by anyone), they aren’t apparent on the court. Certainly since the all-star break we’ve seen only the barest glimpses of ISO-ball, and James has spent most of his time going downhill like an avalanche.
LeBron finished 13-16 from the field, only took two threes (hit one) and had five assists. He was overpowering on offense and demonstrated the health he trumpeted after the game on several dunks, saying he felt better at this point in the season than he had in years.
Overall, the ball didn’t move so badly. Five players had at least three assists. But a lot of shots failed to go down, and because the Wine and Gold don’t always like to get back on defense, the Nets were able to turn those rebounds into fastbreaks and early offense.
The Nets beat the Cavs on second chance points (16-11), fastbreak points (14-13) points off turnover (14-5) and clobbered the Cavs in the paint (60-46). They outrebounded the Cavs (46-45) and shot better (46% to 44%). No way should that happen against a team with less wins (20) through 72 games than the Cavs have losses (21).
But this, to quote James, is who the Cavaliers are. They play down to lesser-quality opponents, shy from physicality, struggle to contain penetration or get back in transition defense, don’t always move the ball or their bodies on offense where they frequently settle for jumpers rather than attack the paint. When the offense doesn’t roll, the defense seems to suffer.
If David Griffin had said “Never have I seen a team show such inconsistent effort” rather than “not have fun when winning” we’d not only have agreed, we’d have been a lot more impressed than we are now. Nothing’s changed about the attitude or demeanor of this team since the coaching change.
They’re still a bunch of surprising lazy, unfocused frontrunners who only truly bring their effort when they’re about to be shamed by someone they think they should beat. It promises to be a collision with reality if they don’t square their attitude soon. The two exceptions of course being LeBron James and Delly who remain seemingly the only players whose focus and effort can reliably be counted upon.
We’ve heard from a lot of fans that can’t bear to watch this team’s sloppy, intermittent effort. The constant tease of great play followed by uninspired ball against teams they should shut down by halftime has demoralized many. The inconsistency is maddening, wearing out more than a few, who’ve sworn off the Cavaliers until the playoffs.
We think that’s a little extreme, though we understand the impulse. As trying as they are to watch can you imagine coaching them? Somewhere David Blatt’s enjoying some wine with a side of shadenfreude dipped in I-told-you-so. It’s hard to hold Lue to much to blame, when it wasn’t he who created the situation, and it’s been all-but intractable all year.
But that was presumably GM Griffin’s point in firing Blatt: “Fellas, this is on you.” Large swaths of the locker room either didn’t get the message or speak a different dialect.
This question-mark-sized-riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma won’t be unwrapped for a few weeks. They looked great in the third quarter, but they’ll need to play for a lot longer than that to hold a trophy. We wonder if they have the attention or attitude to make the trip.
"What bothers me is our effort sometimes and making sure our guys are understanding the moment that they have. That’s the only time I get a little frustrated," James said. "Because I understand the moment that we have and it’s not a given every year that you have a team like this where you have an opportunity to do something special.
"We've got to understand how important our process is," James continued. "It’s not always about the wins and losses. It's about the process and continuing to take steps forward forward forward. Tonight we took a step backwards and we can’t afford to do that this late in the season."
The Cavaliers play the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Saturday. They usually don’t play two stinkers in a row, but nothing is predictable about this team beyond the inconsistency. We’ll be watching the broadcast with you, offering analysis, video and snark. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame column here in the Scene and Heard blog on Sunday morning.