If you have thought, “I might panic about the Cavaliers if their terrible play keeps up, but I don’t want to be too hasty,” then now, now is the time, but you’ll have to get in the long line in front of the panic button.
Lose to the Bulls by 18? Rust from the All-Star Break.
Lost to the Celtics for the first time this season? Love and Smith were out.
Lost to the Heat in back-to-back games, scoring less than 100 and giving up 120 and 106 consecutively? Coasting.
Lost to the Nuggets in a blowout? OK, some signs of concern, but this team knows how to flip the switch.
Lost to the Wizards? It’s a rough patch, but no reason for concern.
Spurs 103, Cavs 74?
Now we have a problem. Maybe. Probably. Or not. It’s the Cavs, in the East. But this was a bad look.
First off, don’t overlook how great the Spurs are. On track for 60-plus wins, again, they are currently 3-0 vs. the Warriors and Cavaliers headed into Wednesday’s final matchup with Golden State. They flummoxed, frustrated and outworked the Cavaliers, which isn’t hard these days, but still a credit to the season Gregg Popovich has constructed around Kawhi Leonard and a supporting cast that might be the worst in San Antonio’s history as a contender. It is a terrifying assortment of weapons versus good teams, or at least it has been in the regular season.
But just as we wonder about the Spurs -- after all, they won 67 games last season and bowed out in the second round -- we wonder about this Cavs team looking bad in the meaningless, too-long regular season. No one wants to look foolish in the end. Through the LeBron subtweets and Kevin Love trade drama, and the overwhelming sense that they simply weren’t good enough, we tried to declare that they were ripe for failure. Instead, they’ve cruised to the NBA Finals two years in a row and last year toppled the team with the best regular season of all time. Should we really play Charlie Brown, going for that oh-so-tempting football that says “The Cavs are frauds” when we’ve seen this team look like a tornado once the regular season finishes?
Let’s be clear, the Cavs’ regular season résumé is a mess.
They are 23rd in defensive rating. That would be the worst mark of a team to win the title at that bad of a points-per-possession mark since data became available, edging out a lazy early-2000’s Lakers team that had no real competition league-wide. The Cavaliers have a host of talented if inferior teams in the East, and then whatever spectacular team comes out of the West, most likely the Warriors, the same team they had to pull of the greatest comeback in NBA history against last year, who, oh by the way, added Kevin Durant.
Maybe Monday was just a bad game. They scored 74 points, and that’s just a disastrous night. They shot 4 of 26 from 3-point range for crying out loud. It’s possible, if unlikely, that the Spurs game isn’t tied to their boredom woes but just a bad game at the end of such troubles, at the worst time. But even if that’s the case, it still speaks to a still troublesome trope with this squad. They are the kids who were brilliant in high school and expect to just show up at the end of the college semester, ace the final and pass the class. It took everything, every little bit last year, to win the title, and now this team is older, slower and has two straight Finals runs with all the miles that go along with it on their treads.
They’re tired, they’re slow and they’re struggling.
Is self-belief (and James) enough? Can they really get waxed like this with the playoffs two-plus weeks away against a major threat and prevail? Is there no concern of that switch’s location and their ability to flip it?
The answer is that yes, now, there has to be some concern. Panic? Surely not, not until an opponent has three wins in a series. But maybe a little. Just because of the unknown. The Cavs’ first two seasons with James back in town were so weird, so full of drama and crazy turns, the wild run in 2015 only to face crippling injuries, last season’s troubled go followed by the exaltation of Game 7. Maybe that’s part of it, though. The Cavs have never faced real failure. The 2015 team could simply point to Kyrie Irving and Love’s injuries. And last season was hard, no doubt, but they won. The Cavs have never failed, certainly not in the East playoffs. How do you learn not to play with fire if you’ve had your hand over the candle for two years and never been burned?
This might all seem like a silly blip or a bad dream in a month’s time when they’re tearing through some seventh or eighth seed. But right now, from where things stand Monday night, the road to the Finals goes through Boston. Kevin Love hasn’t looked the same since his injury and neither has J.R. Smith. The defense is broken, the bench is frail and built on skill, not physicality. Can the Cavs win the title still?
Of course, they have James.
But the answer to the question, “Will they win the championship?” That’s the one that gets more and more concerning for the Cavs, and their highest expectations, by the minute.