The Cavaliers were outscored 26-20 in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s 105-102 loss to the host Bulls.
Most followers of the Cavs know a win against Chicago would have wrapped up home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. For now, the top seed in the East is still on hold, and time has run out on any notion that this Cavs team will enter the postseason as a finely-tuned machine. Some thoughts:
1. The Cavs did on Saturday night what they’ve done most of this season — played an inconsistent 48 minutes. Within most regular-season games, they’ve shown glimpses of pure dominance dovetailed with stretches of inexplicable futility.
2. The postseason is about a week away, but I don’t think fans should take solace in the hope that losses like the one Saturday night don’t really matter. Frankly, this season has been one long statement that now reads as an excuse: “The Cavs just need to get to the playoffs, they’ll be fine.”
3. I don’t think that’s true. This “too cool for school” approach suggests every criticism of another disappointing Cavs loss is a profound overreaction misses an obvious point — this team was built and paid for to be dominant. Yes, they lead the Eastern Conference, but no one can rightfully suggest the Cavs have been dominant for any meaningful stretch of games this season.
4. So, at some point, the assumption that regular-season losses are indicators of nothing and that the don of the playoffs will suddenly beckon the Cavs to focus for all 48 minutes, every night, is simply fiction.
5. I certainly don’t think the Cavs’ potential march to a title is hopeless. For one, they have LeBron James, who is playing his best ball of the season and always makes a win possible. But I also think the Cavs will need to be creative in their approach, and I’m less than confident Tyronn Lue is capable of engineering wins.
6. What I propose probably seems like a drastic change, but the Cavs fired a coach who was 30-11 at the season’s midpoint, so let’s not play pretend that this organization sits on a bedrock of stability and patience. Here are some changes I would make for the playoffs if I were Lue:
7. The starting five: Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, James, Kevin Love and Channing Frye. The first two off the bench: Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavadova. The third off the bench, but only for end-of-quarter closeouts: Iman Shumpert. Unless the game is firmly in hand, that’s it.
8. So basically, I’m proposing a seven-man rotation (and a starting five that has barely played together). I know, I know — how will James and Love and Irving possibly stay fresh for a two-month stretch of games if they’re playing 42-plus minutes each game? The answer is I don’t know, but this is the reality the Cavs face. What once seemed like a deep team is actually a roster with little to no functional talent at the back end.
9. Richard Jefferson, Timofey Mozgov and, for the most part, Shumpert and Mo Williams, probably shouldn’t play many, if any, meaningful minutes. Especially deeper in the postseason. Why? Because they generally don’t contribute to high-caliber play. It’s a difficult truth.
10. The biggest change Lue should consider is his lineup to begin the second and fourth quarters. Against the Bulls, he trotted out Irving out and four players who more or less stand in one spot on offense. This emboldened Irving to audition for the Harlem Globetrotters — but left the Cavs in a hole. Lue, as seems to happen a bit too often, was content to sit and watch the Bulls handle this dysfunctional lineup.
11. I guess most of the points above are really driving at one thing: James can’t rest much in the playoffs. Not incredibly insightful, I know. It’s a drag, it’s not advisable given the miles he’s accrued, but it’s the reality. No one who spells him — Jefferson, Shumpert, even James Jones — is adequate if the goal is winning a title.
12. I haven’t written much about the actual loss to the Bulls because there isn’t much interesting to glean from it. The Cavs built some leads, then frittered them away with dreadful bench play (the bench scored 11 points; in contrast, the Bulls bench scored 44 points led by a man named Christian Felicio, who scored 16 points on a perfect 7-7 from the field). Irving had a terrible night shooting and couldn’t navigate his way around hard double teams. And Love started hot but kind of disappeared over the final three quarters.
13. I did have one fleeting thought during the game, and it was a rueful look back at what could have been with Joe Johnson. Admittedly, when Johnson was deciding which team he would jump to after his release from the Nets, I downplayed his potential value to the Cavs. I was wrong. Johnson would have mitigated the fact guys like Jefferson and Shumpert are not contributing anything.
14. The Cavs will probably end up with home-court throughout the Eastern Finals and thus are the clear favorites to reach the Finals. But to do something historic, James is going to have log an immense amount of minutes, and he must be brilliant every game.