Cavs' brutal loss to Magic has them looking inward: 'Nobody's coming to save us'
With Tyronn Lue leaving early, the Cavs blew a 21-point lead and found a new rock bottom
ORLANDO, Fla. -- How low can the Cavaliers go? They're trying to find out just that this season. Never mind the endless drama that surrounds a team that entered the season with title aspirations. The ever-growing realization that Isaiah Thomas might simply be a bad fit personality- and style-wise. The rumors that LeBron James and the front office are than ever in what could be his final year with the team. Forget all of that.
The Cavs' tendency to forget how to be a functional basketball team has to feel normal, after these past three years. Games in January and February don't mean as much as the ones in April, May, and June. Everybody knows that, and no one has lived that as much as James and the Cavs. So we have this conversation every year, it seems. The Cavs are struggling? Will LeBron's streak of NBA Finals appearances finally reach its end? Then they flip a switch late in the season, sweep the first round and cruise through the playoffs. It's almost a formula at this point.
However, this season feels different.
When Cleveland lost Tuesday to the Magic, thanks to a major collapse in the third quarter, there was no feeling that a switch could be flipped. The Cavs went from leading by 21 points to losing by 18. They scored a grand total of nine points in the fourth quarter.
"When we hit adversity, we go our separate ways," Thomas said. "That has to change if we want to be the really good team we want to be."
Perhaps this adversity came via coach Tyronn Lue. He started off the game coaching but got sick and left in the middle of the second quarter. He spent halftime away from the locker room before he was forced to sit out the rest of the game due to an undisclosed illness. It might have been coincidental, but the Cavs' collapse really began once Lue was forced to the locker room.
"We had some breakdowns in the second quarter," said Larry Drew, the NBA coaching veteran who stepped in for Lue as his top assistant. "Then it carried right over into the third quarter. I believe they scored 40 points in that quarter. They continuously just broke us down off the dribble. We couldn't keep the ball in front of us"
Jonathon Simmons erupted in the third quarter. He had 22 of his 34 points in the third while James was forced to the bench with four fouls. He was the spark that began Cleveland's collapse, but if you ask the Magic they knew this was coming. This is what Cleveland does. It lets teams back into games -- as it did back on Jan. 18, almost allowing the Magic to storm back from a 20-point halftime deficit to take the lead with 31 seconds left. Thomas bailed Cleveland out that time, but the Magic had seen the disarray firsthand.
"That's actually what we told ourselves at halftime," Orlando guard Evan Fournier said. "That they were going to give us a chance to get back into the game, because that's what they did back in Cleveland"
This is the major difference between the last few Cavs teams and this one. There is no belief that, even at their weakest moments, the Cavs can still crush their opponent. Instead, teams are telling themselves that a collapse is coming. They're going to break down like they always do.
"It's just a combination of our season pretty much," James said. "We have had big leads this year. We've lost them for whatever reason"
James says he's not sure why the Cavs have been consistently blowing leads, but the reason for it really comes down to the defensive end. None of James previous Cavs teams were this bad on defense. It's beyond effort. They simply can't defend. They're ranked 28th for the season and 29th since Christmas. Their defense is usually what snowballs into the rest of their problems. Those problems evolve into a run for the opposing team. Those runs result in chaos.
"It's frustrating to lose games" Cavs sixth-man Wade said. "You understand in this league how a 20-point lead can get taken away fast -- but not this quick. That's too fast for a veteran ball club."
The Cavs seem to acknowledge that there is a problem. They can even tell what the problem is. They might even know the solution to that problem, but they can't seem to reach that solution. Their 6-13 record since Christmas indicates a tailspin that they aren't going to just pull themselves out of. Which brings this all back around to the idea that a switch can just be flipped.
The trade deadline is approaching. The All-Star break shortly after that. If there was ever a time to flip a switch then around now would be that time, but instead the Cavs are fighting through endless rumors and trying to avoid blowing 21 point leads to the Magic. They're failing to do it.
However, they still have LeBron James and yes that does still count for something these days. Having arguably still the best player in the world will always matter. James preached staying "positive," of course. But there's a harsher truth known throughout the Cavs' locker room.
"Nobody's coming to save us," Wade said. "It's not the coaches' fault. It's the players'. We gotta own it. All of us. When we get opportunities, we all gotta do our job. We recognize that."
There is no trade that can be made at the deadline that will save the Cavs season. Firing the coach? They couldn't even survive two-and-a-half quarters without him. The only thing that is going to save the Cavs is themselves, but it's really hard to believe they can actually do it this time.
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