We’ve seen this movie before. The Cleveland Cavaliers go through a lull in the regular season, forcing us to reconsider their contender credentials, only for LeBron James and Co to remind us the playoffs are a different animal and a Finals appearances is all but a formality.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times…
Here’s the thing though. The Cavaliers’ recent stretch of play, in which they’ve dropped seven of their last 12 and allowed more than 120 points five times this month, should be concerning because there’s more to it than too many games in too few nights or yawning through the regular season with the playoffs on the horizon.
Two opposing ideas can be true at the same time. The Cavaliers have the best player in the world, championship experience and a know-how of locking in when the games truly matter. They also have real defensive and personnel issues this season that can’t be swept under the rug.
Will they again annihilate the Eastern Conference in the playoffs or is this the year when their regular-season ghosts come back to haunt them? As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
It’s impossible not to compare Cleveland’s season to their past two campaigns, when they looked vulnerable for prolonged periods before unleashing hell in the playoffs, losing all of two games before the Finals in each postseason.
Offence has never been a cause for concern. Rather it’s been the other side of the floor that’s seen Cleveland wildly fluctuate, but weak defensive stretches during the 2015-16 and 2014-15 regular seasons were made a thing of the past in the playoffs.
History, however, is very much against them this time around. No team outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency has hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy since the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001 and the Cavaliers currently sit 22nd in the league with a defensive rating of 108.1. No team had ever overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals either, so it’s hard to bet against Cleveland and namely LeBron, but it’s also hard to ignore a red flag like that.
Last season, the Cavaliers were right on the cusp by ranking 10th with a defensive rating of 102.3 and two years ago they finished 20th. Sure, they could have well broken the trend in 2015 if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were healthy in the Finals, but consider that Cleveland’s defensive rating for that season was 104.1, which would be tied for sixth this year.
Personnel and situation has everything to do with their struggles.
Matthew Dellavedova is no longer around to hound opposing guards and the Cavaliers’ big man depth is paper thin. J.R. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t been the same reliable wing defender from last season, while Tristan Thompson has been overextended at centre. But in both Smith and Thompson’s case, injuries and workload have played a role in their ineffectiveness and those factors should be mitigated in the playoffs.
And then there’s LeBron, who is saving both his energy and a higher gear on defence for the postseason.
Even when the intensity and focus is ratcheted up, it may not translate to another comfortable jaunt past the East. Instead of sweeps, Cleveland could actually be in competitive series.
Still, the Cavaliers have earned the benefit of the doubt and we may again be left waiting for a downfall that never comes.
There’s a time and place for players to celebrate in the face of a loss, and for the Phoenix Suns, that window was absolutely during Devin Booker’s historic performance in Boston.
I hear you. What’s the point if you don’t win the game? Winning is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?
Sure, but context matters, as it always does, and when you isolate the loss to the Celtics and juxtapose it with Phoenix’s struggle the past two seasons, it makes sense why Suns players were jumping up and down on the bench while Booker was doing what no one his age had ever done before.
Scoring 70 points in a game isn’t just some cool, off-hand feat. Michael Jordan never scored that many points – he only managed 69, that stiff. Seriously though, Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer have passed through the NBA and not accomplished the feat, let alone at the age of 20.
Even though they were mostly meaningless points, the final bit a result of textbook garbage-time inflation, the record books won’t reflect that and you’ll never be able to take the history away from Booker and the Suns.
When you’re 22-51 and fielding the youngest starting lineup ever, you’re allowed to celebrate the few wins you earn, especially when they’re promising for the future. And Booker, even before he caught on fire in Boston like he was in NBA Jam, was considered a star in the making.
He may never end up being the best shooting guard in the league, an MVP-calibre player or a Hall of Famer, but for one special night he was all that wrapped into one and moments like that are too far and few not to soak in.
And by the way, the Celtics need to stop being so bitter about the whole thing.
Unwritten rules and their significance in sports is tiresome. They’re unwritten for a reason. Phoenix coach Earl Watson rightly wasn’t concerned with Boston’s feelings when he was preserving time and possessions by calling timeout and instructing for intentional fouls – he was too focused on allowing his own players to thrive, even if it meant just a moral victory.
Good-natured trash-talking is great, but if Celtics players were really that annoyed with how Booker scored and how the Suns celebrated in the aftermath, they could have played some better defence. A frustrated Brad Stevens certainly felt that way.
But this is about Booker and the gem Phoenix have, giving them hope that even more special nights could be on the way.
Westbrook scored 24 points, had 10 rebounds and made 16 assists to lead the Thunder to a 123-102 win over the Toronto Raptors - their fourth on the bounce.
One of his assists, in particular, caught the eye, with the 28-year-old throwing a cleverly weighed cross court bounce pass to Victory Oladipo that thread the needle between the legs of the defender en route to a stunning score.
Moreover, Westbrook is only seven triple-doubles behind Oscar Robertson's record of 41 for most in an NBA season, going back to the 1960s.