CLEVELAND, Ohio – In a Player’s Tribune article earlier this week, all-star hopefuls Collin Sexton spoke about the nature of the Cleveland Cavaliers “Back on the map” Thanks to an unexpected start she had in the quarter-finals of the season in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Suddenly they are in free fall, losing five of their last six games and three right after Saturday 124-99 blowout against the superior Milwaukee Bucks.
Now one can wonder how long the Cavs will be on the proverbial map. After a ruthless road trip on the west coast against five playoff competitors, all of whom have a record over .500, will they even be visible in 10 days? How about when the all-star break comes?
“Just staying on course is our main thing right now,” said Andre Drummond. “Obviously it’s a long season. We play a lot of games, we have a lot of young people on the team who are still getting used to the game. We will not hang our heads on the losses, we take them as learning experiences. We’re still fighting. We’re still not far from being a playoff team. We will continue to fight for this position. Give the best we have. “
Technically, Drummond is correct. Even after a turbulent two-week course, the Cavs sit in 10th place in the East. This year, with a shortened regular season and a new format, that would be good enough to qualify for the play-in tournament. Cav’s head coach JB Bickerstaff said a few months ago that he would see it the same way. The Cavs also get a slight boost in the weaker conference that lived up to that nickname early on, as Seed six, seven, and eight all have less than 500 records.
There are a handful of teams the Cavs have to keep up with in order to achieve this slipping playoff goal – and none of them are the Bucks, Clippers, Lakers, or Celtics, the daunting quartet that contributed to Cleveland’s recent fall. Aside from the nocturnal nature of the sport, these championship candidates do not belong to the League of Cavs. That reality has become clear. Average loss: 22 points.
On Saturday night, a tight six-point game turned into a runaway from Milwaukee in four minutes. Bad route. That was all it took. Talk about a microscopic area of error.
“You play against teams that are championship-level teams and you learn areas where you need to improve in order to compete with the best,” said Bickerstaff. “We’ll keep learning, we’ll keep working with our boys, we’ll keep getting better.”
The Cavs will spend the next few days figuring out how to improve. Everyone has a different theory. Cedi Osman said he had to shoot more 3s – 30 or more triples per game. Darius Garland said they need to play as a unit, stick to their sets and principles, and not panic when adversity arises in the game. Drummond and Bickerstaff said the defensive identity must return. The Cavs have dropped from first to ninth place. A few more shows like the last three and they’ll be in the top 10.
“I don’t see why we can’t,” said Drummond. “I mean, we’ve done it before. It’s really just about getting the engine going again. Not even seeing the negatives but watching what we are really good at to get that thought back into our head that this is what we have to do to play as a great defensive team. I think we got complacent defensively. I think it has become so routine for us that we forget about the little things we have to do. “
Thoughts. Hopes. Aspirations. They are all nice. It is good that coaches and players are trying to find solutions. That is their job. But there is a reality before the Cavs. It has been staring at her for weeks now. There is a massive gap between the elite and development. There are steps involved in a process.
Right now the Cavs are trying to fight above their weight class. They can swing anything they want, but the chances of those blows landing or causing damage aren’t great.
Is it really surprising that a team in their third year of rebuilding that still misses a key player (Kevin Love) and starts three players at 22 or younger suddenly suffer a string of losses to some of the league’s heavyweights?
She was concerned during other points this season. Not now. This is not about Drummond’s repeated hits on the post that clog the lane and make him an easy target. It’s not about Isaac giving Okoro little offense. It’s not about Larry Nance Jr. looking much less effective since he sprained his wrist. It’s not about the Cavs playing with less force than they used to be. It’s not about believing their own press clippings. None of them. The point here is that the opponent is better up ahead. A tough schedule that doesn’t have many breaks.
The Cavs are only 4-9 against teams over .500. More than half of their victories were achieved against comparable competition – including Detroit, Minnesota and New York. They used the Memphis Grizzlies to play without Ja Morant. Brooklyn came into town with a converted roster that was still trying to build chemistry. MVP candidate Joel Embiid did not play in the December win over Philadelphia.
While these circumstances don’t detract from Cleveland’s impressive start, it helps put this – and the slip that followed – into better perspective.
Phoenix, Denver, Portland and Golden State are waiting. The Cavs – and their place in the overall standings – could look very different upon their return to Cleveland.
Bickerstaff used coaches to speak after the game. He was referring to the game-to-game mantra, trying to focus on them rather than the opponent. But he can read a schedule. He knows what’s coming. The organization has adjusted to this since the schedule was released months ago. Ten of the last 12 games at the end of the first half are against teams with record wins.
Cleveland’s hopes depend on this route. Maybe the direction of the second half. Who are the Cavs? What are they made of? What will they do at close of trading? Are you a legitimate playoff contender?
This is the crossroads of their season.
“I’m excited,” said Drummond. “I’ll show where we are as a team and what kind of battle we have. I don’t think we withdrew to a good team that we played against or any other team. We will come out and fight. We will give the best we have and it will only be a margin of where we are and what we need to work on in the years to come. “
Even their best might not be enough.
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