Four points I’m thinking about the Cleveland Cavaliers…
1.) Heading into the season, very few NBA prognosticators expected the Cavs to have a dominant regular season.
This wasn’t so much a slight against the defending champs, as it was a realistic assessment of how much importance this team was going to place on the season’s first 82 games. Anyone who watched the Cavs last season saw a team whose focus was about as reliable as that of a pre-op LASIK patient. Given their tendency to often play without a sense of urgency, and the general feeling that head coach Tyronn Lue would heavily manage the minutes of his top players — LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love — so that the team would be at peak health going into the playoffs (where their real title defense will take place), led many to consider this team’s regular season performance an afterthought. Their biggest enemy, many thought, would be themselves.
Over the last two games — a win against the Philadelphia 76ers and a loss to the always plucky (against the Cavs, anyway) Milwaukee Bucks — the Cavs have started to show signs that, champions though they may be, old habits do, in fact, die hard.
If a slow start on a Sunday matinee in Philly can be overlooked, the team coming out on Tuesday and coughing the ball up 20 times — nearly seven more than their average per game — and allowing 68 points in the paint against the Bucks is the kind of unfocused performance Cavs fans have (thankfully) not seen much of in this young season. But, even if they right the ship tonight against the Clippers, the battle against boredom seems like it will be an ongoing one this year. From Joe Vardon at cleveland.com:
“When you have a team that’s a championship team and you went to two straight Finals, you’ve been doing the same thing for three years, it gets redundant,” Lue said. “With the team we have, a bunch of veteran guys, rightfully so. But you still have to do the drills, continue to get better, you still have to go through offensive sets you’ve been working on, continuing to work on execution, and the guys know it so they get bored with it sometimes. Rightfully so.”
2.) Prior to the season, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton predicted that the Cavs would win 52 games. ESPN.com pegged the Cavs for 57 wins, and when the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas released its over/under win totals for the 2016-17 NBA season, it settled half a win below that at 56.5. Pelton’s low total was attributed to Irving’s poor defense and the loss of Matthew Dellavedova, while others claimed that the lack of regular season urgency would keep the Cavs from cracking 60 wins.
The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto wrote about what he felt would be the Cavs’ biggest obstacle:
GM Griffin has often said the Cavs are better off when they “are the hunter rather than the hunted.” In other words, they are better when they are down or seriously challenged. We saw it in the playoffs last season. They lost twice in Toronto, entering Game 5 deadlocked at 2-2.
They won the next two games by 26 and 38 points. Fans know of the historic comeback against Golden State.
3.) Even after Tuesday’s loss to the Bucks — as the hunted this season, especially in the Eastern Conference — the Cavs have the NBA’s second best record at 13-3. Right now, they are on pace to win 67 games this season. That’s one better than the previous franchise-best record of 66-16 set in 2008-09.
So far, the Cavs have played exactly how a team who has just won a championship, and whose core has been together for between a season and a half (J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert) and two full seasons (James, Irving, Love, Tristan Thompson, and James Jones) should be playing. This is the first time in a long time that Cavs fans get the treat of seeing a team that knows how to play together, and that familiarity is showing on the court.
They’re putting up the second most points in the league, rank in the top ten in rebounds and assists, and have done something most people (myself included) didn’t think possible: James, Irving, and Love are each averaging over 20 points per game. Tonight’s game against the Clippers should have their attention. Hopefully, that will be enough to get them back playing at the level they displayed for the first month of the season.
4.) Every team in the NBA suffers through lapses like the Cavs had this week. If you want proof, you only need to look at the Cavs’ opponent tonight, the Los Angeles Clippers.
Just a week ago, we were getting a whole bunch of stories deeming the Clips the best team in the NBA. Now, Lob City is dealing with a three game losing streak (including a double-OT gaffe against the lowly Brooklyn Nets) that has dropped them to 14-5 and third place in the Western Conference behind the Warriors and the Spurs.
So, what’s happened to the Clippers?
Heading into their road trip, they were humming on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. They had a 111.7 Offensive Rating and a 98.2 Defensive Rating, which equated to a league-best 13.5 Net Rating (a spot now occupied by the Warriors with a Net Rating of 13).
Out on the road, though, everything basically flipped for Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the La La Land crew. Over their three game losing streak, their Offensive Rating plummeted to 92.9, while their Defensive Rating soared to 103.2, for a Net of -10.2 (which, for the season, is just .2 better than the league-worst Net Rating of the Sixers).
Both the Clippers and the Cavs could be guilty of looking ahead at tonight’s matchup, the only truly interesting matchup for either team in over a week. If that’s the case, it’ll be a race to see which team can “flip the switch” quicker tonight at The Q.