After the Cavaliers lost their fourth consecutive game on Saturday to fall to 5-7 on the season, LeBron James said the team is “fragile.” His description came with a warning: “This is not even the lowest it's going to get for us,” James said.
Whatever becomes of the Cavaliers this season, those words won’t likely be forgotten anytime soon. If Cleveland is able to overcome its early issues and develop into a championship contender, its self-proclaimed fragility will serve as evidence of the degree to which it recast itself in the course of a few months. If, on the contrary, the Cavaliers continue to toil in mediocrity, it will not be hard to identify when they first began showing cracks.
Cleveland’s path forward, viewed through the prism of James’ frank assessment, boils down to this: A fragile team can plug its holes and make progress or continue to take on water while sinking under the weight of its own problems. Two games is too small a sample size from which to project the Cavaliers’ long-term trajectory, but it appears James and his teammates are trending in the right direction.
The first positive signs came during Monday night’s 32-point win over the Magic. Cleveland, whose poor defense has come under the microscope, limited Orlando to 36.3 percent shooting. James played one of his best games of the season by scoring 29 points and recording 11 assists against only one turnover in three quarters. This came on the same day he created headlines with another candid evaluation.
"We got a four-game losing streak, so I stink," James said hours before the game against the Magic. "I'm not doing my job."
James wasn’t as dominant Wednesday night against the Wizards in Cleveland, but he did enough to lead the Cavaliers to a win over a team with legitimate aspirations of landing a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. James went at Washington early, repeatedly drawing contact on his way to 12 first-quarter points.
The Cavaliers took a 12-point lead into the half despite an 8-2 run from Washington to close the second quarter. Cleveland was in control throughout the third quarter and opened up a comfortable lead in the fourth before closing out a 113-87 win.
James finished 7-for-14 from the field for 29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals in 36 minutes. Perhaps the most encouraging part of his performance was the number of times he got to the free-throw line. James’ attacking mindset and frequent forays into the paint paid huge dividends, as the four-time MVP connected on 14 of his 17 attempts at the stripe.
During Cleveland’s early malaise, some have pointed out that James seemed less aggressive than he was in previous seasons. This criticism was not without merit. Entering Wednesday, James was averaging 6.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, down from his career average of 7.8.
For an example of the way James punished Washington with his drives on Wednesday, consider this sequence with less than two minutes remaining in the second quarter. Dribbling near the top of the key, James explodes past Paul Pierce, using his left elbow to
pop him in the face create space, before jamming the ball through the hoop with one hand.
James gets plenty of good looks at the rim after penetrating, but arguably just as important is his ability to create opportunities for others. Consider this play midway through the first quarter, in which Marcin Gortat and Pierce contest James, leaving Anderson Varejao wide on the right block. James sees Varejao and flips him the ball for an easy layup. It’s those sets, as much as James’ ferocious rushes to the tin, that will bring Cleveland’s offense closer to the stratospheric heights some thought possible in the preseason.
To be sure, two strong games from James is cause for optimism, but it was reasonable to expect the best player on the planet to get things in order sooner rather than later. More encouraging was Cleveland’s defense. For the second game in a row, the Cavaliers were decidedly not-atrocious on that side of the ball. The Wizards scored only 94.9 points per 100 possessions (compared to their season average of 102.3) and were held below 90 points for only the second time this season.
Cleveland did a good job contesting shots and forced Washington into 18 turnovers. Kyrie Irving, who has faced scrutiny for his defense, was tenacious in coverage and recorded three steals. His effort is particularly encouraging considering his recent request for more defensive respo
“We’ve been defending and we’re not giving away opportunities and giving away points,” said Cavaliers coach David Blatt, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. “We’ve defended the last two games as well as we have the whole season.”
Keep in mind that this defensive effort comes less than three days after Cleveland held the Magic to 74 points and an ugly 80.8 points per 100 possessions.
It’d be premature to proclaim, on the basis of two games, that Cleveland has solved its defense woes. The Cavaliers lack rim protection, James has appeared disinterested at times and co-stars Kevin Love and Irving have not exactly carved out reputations as elite stoppers.
Still, this two-game run is a positive development for a team under intense pressure to get its bearings amid a rocky start. Fragile, solid, or something in between, the Cavaliers appear to be in a better place than they were two games ago.