One loss does not an NBA season make. It’s the end of the season and teams are resting players. One loss does not matter. So why was the Cleveland Cavaliers loss on Monday so damning?
Monday night, the Cavs absorbed a drubbing from the San Antonio Spurs. If anyone tells you the game wasn’t close, they’re lying: the score was briefly tied at 0-0. The Spurs got wherever they wanted on the court. Patty Mills was wizardry personified. Danny Green and Manu Ginobili were blocking LeBron and Kyrie Irving at the basket. Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge were too big to fail. The Cavs did turn it on in the third quarter, enough to close the gap to 23 points. The final margin was 29.
If that weren’t enough, James took an elbow to the neck and did not return to the game.
The oddest thing about the game? The Cavs did not play badly. The Spurs were just…better.
If it weren’t the last two weeks of the season, it would be dismissed as a meaningless game. But it was March 27, both teams played their starters, and the Cavs were exposed – badly. That loss showed why Cleveland will not be winning their second straight NBA championship.
1. No help inside
A few weeks ago, I was of the mindset that Cleveland needed a lot of help with interior defense. After all, I thought, there’s really only Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, and Love isn’t a great on-ball or help defender. My guys brushed this off. They’d pick it up come playoff time and besides, who could compete with them in the East, anyway? The conversation seemed moot when the Cavs got Andrew Bogut for next to nothing from Dallas. The return trip to the Finals seemed fairly secure.
Now, we’re at the end of March. Andrew Bogut lasted 100 seconds in a Cavs uniform, and while I’m honestly happy to see Larry Sanders back in the league, I’m not sure he’s ready to guard the likes of Al Horford or Marcin Gortat. It’s Tristan Thompson versus the world, and if the Cavs do manage to make the Finals again, that won’t be enough to win the title.
2. A bench too shallow
Let’s be clear: Cleveland doesn’t have a problem through their top five or six players. Their starters? Nearly spectacular. The trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Love is going to be enough to win you some games by themselves, and JR Smith and Thompson round out a formidable starting five. After that, you have Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Derrick Williams and Deron Williams. No, your mind is not playing tricks on you, that’s Cleveland’s bench.
Offense? Sure, but you need LeBron and Kyrie on the floor to distribute for everyone except Jefferson. Defense? Jefferson and Shumpert. It’s not surprising that 13 of their 26 losses have been blowouts when you have a short bench with porous defense. But when you look at who’s dressed them down (Chicago twice, Portland, Detroit, Milwaukee), there is cause for concern. Give Korver credit for playing well (10 PPG, 48-48-90), but he’s the only consistent player in the second unit, and even he’s on the injured list right now.
3. The burden of royalty
Moses Malone began his pro career just after Nixon’s resignation and ended it just after Nixon’s death. Kobe Bryant played for the Lakers for nearly as long. Kevin Garnett’s career spanned 20 years as well. Not all high school bonus babies have long NBA careers, but the best stay the best for a long time. LeBron’s numbers this season are impressive by average player standards (26-8-8, 54-37-67) and he’s been holding at that level for the last five years. Even as he’s averaged more than 37 minutes per game his whole career, he’s never played a full 82-game regular season. He doesn’t have the same mileage on his body that Mo, KG and Kobe did at that age. There’s no reason to think he’ll slow down in the playoffs.
However, the wear and tear of a career full of hard fouls might finally be settling in. Monday’s injury probably frightened the fans more than anything, and James says he’ll be ready to play Thursday against Chicago. Still, those nagging injuries coupled with increased defensive responsibility will make it difficult for LeBron to put the team on his back once again.