Right now, with about 20 games left in the season, is when teams headed to the playoffs — particularly elite teams — focus on execution, making sure they have built good habits, defensive rotations and all the little things that determine success in the postseason.
LeBron James said the Cavaliers are not yet ready.
Hard to argue with him after Cleveland dropped a game at home Monday to a Memphis team without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Matt Barnes, Courtney Lee (traded), and other key players. Heck, the Cavaliers didn’t look ready for the regular season Monday. Here is what LeBron and Kevin Love said postgame, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.
“I can sit up here and say that we’re a team that’s ready to start the playoffs tomorrow, but we’re not,” LeBron James said after the Cavs trailed by as many as 14 before losing at the buzzer when Kyrie Irving missed a potential game-tying 3. “We’re still learning. We still have things that happen on the court that just, that shouldn’t happen.”
“We just could have done a better job of respecting the game,” Love said. “A team like that, they were going to come out and swing for the fences, and they did. That was a real bad loss for us. … Turnovers were terrible. That was what I mean, respecting the game.”
The Cavaliers had won three in a row coming in, but it’s hard to write off Monday’s result as a one-off night for the Cavaliers — they have looked like a talented team playing next to each other not with each other all season. LeBron and Kyrie Irving are not on the same page. They look vulnerable. Something Chris Mannix laid out beautifully at The Vertical at Yahoo Sports recently.
The Cavs remain atop the Eastern Conference standings and have the equalizer – James – that no team can account for. But teams can account for everyone else. Strategies are simple: Pick-and-roll Love to death, move the ball patiently against an opportunistic defense, and hope James doesn’t have a Herculean fourth quarter in him.
Irving remains a dynamic scorer, but the disconnect between Irving and James is real, several scouts and coaches told The Vertical, with the on-court chemistry between the two, said one scout who saw Cleveland play recently, “basically nonexistent.” Team sources insist the relationship is solid, that James is simply teaching, trying to raise Irving’s basketball IQ. No one understands Irving’s importance more than James, team sources told The Vertical, which is why no one is working harder than James to get the two All-Stars on the same page.
This has been evident for a while. It’s also something Tyronn Lue was not going to be able to fix taking over mid-season, if at all. Lue can preach sacrifice all he wants (particularly to Irving), but until the players work things out and buy in there is only so much any coach can do. (Where guys like Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson excelled is getting players to buy in, but that’s another discussion.)
The Cavaliers have the home stretch of the regular season to straighten things out, and to be honest even playing as they are now Cleveland is the best team in the East — but not by much. Their margin for error against a team like Toronto — who beat Cleveland two out of three this season — is small. The Cavaliers need to get better to ensure they make the NBA Finals.
Then they can think about the juggernauts out West.