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Hoonhout: Cavaliers cannot afford to be complacent

| Wednesday, March 29, 2017

After their blowout 103-74 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers responded in a number of different ways. LeBron James called the situation “delicate.” Tyronn Lue laughed at how badly his team had been outplayed. And Kyrie Irving went back out onto the court and started hoisting shots up.

But regardless of how you look at it, Cleveland now finds itself half a game back of the Boston Celtics, breaking a streak of 129 consecutive days that the Cavs had been in first. This late in the season, you’d expect that the defending champs would have things sorted out and would be focused on the playoffs. Instead, Cleveland has gone 8-10 since the All Star break, and while the combination of injuries, poor bench play and atrocious defense have all taken their toll, the real question might be where the team’s mental state lies. And with blood in the water, the sharks are circling.

Many thought that Cleveland would have no trouble locking up the Eastern Conference championship this season, and for the first half of the year, it looked to be the case, with the only serious competitor manifesting itself in the Toronto Raptors. But in January, both the Celtics and the Washington Wizards went on tears of 10-4 and 12-3, respectively, and suddenly the Cavaliers started to sense trouble.

Cleveland added one of the league’s premier sharpshooters in Kyle Korver, and LeBron became outspoken about the team’s need for a second point guard, which resulted in the signing of veteran Deron Williams. Those moves, coupled J.R. Smith and Kevin Love returning from injury, certainly solidified Cleveland’s rotation on paper, but since the All Star break, the Cavs are simply not playing better.

A grueling schedule has seen them struggling on the road in losses to the Clippers and Nuggets, at home to the now threatening Wizards and up against a potential Finals opponent in the Spurs, they were demolished. Not only are they getting beaten on both ends of the floor, but they are especially poor on defense. Since the break, Cleveland ranks among the bottom third of the league in every major defensive category, and the second unit is struggling to find a rhythm, like on Monday night when it went scoreless in the first half.

Sure, every team goes through bad streaks, and the Cavs find themselves in one after a tough season of injuries and rotation adjustments. But at this point of the season, with only nine games to go, the defending champs aren’t focused on the playoffs. They aren’t even focused on what seed they get.

“It matters more that we play better basketball than where we’re at,” James said postgame on Monday night. “If that results in the No. 1, 2 or 3 seed, we need to play better basketball. That’s all it comes down to. I’m not worried about anything.”

To me, this makes no sense. Not only have the Cavs played worse than they did last year, even after strengthening their roster, but the team seems to have no compass. There clearly remains the goal of defending the title, but there is a vague sense that somehow, someway the team will flip on a switch come playoffs and all will be well. But it won’t. The cakewalk that was the Eastern conference for the Cavs last year is now much more perilous, and Boston, Washington and Toronto all are hungry at a chance to finally upset LeBron and Co.

The fact that the Cavs are now not certain to finish first in their conference is certainly a sign of weakness, and last year’s mental toughness and determination of bringing the title to Cleveland, no matter the cost, seems to have vanished. While I have no doubt that LeBron has a method to his madness, the outward manifestations of this apparently relaxed mindset are all pointing to a team that is still trying to find its identity. And at this time of year, it might be too late to discover it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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