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.
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