Could the Cavaliers be contenders and Warriors bait? Despite being heavy favorites, LeBron James and Co. have some big-picture questions to figure out.
WASHINGTON — Here is a story about two Cavaliers losses this weekend that probably mean nothing, but might tell you everything. LeBron James didn't play Sunday, and the Cavs lost. We can start there.
"He gives us everything," Kevin Love said of James after the blowout loss. "He's one of those guys, there are very few, that really makes everyone on his team better. We definitely missed him tonight."
"It hurts us offensively," Tyronn Lue explained when reporters asked about LeBron's absence. "And then him being out offensively also hurts us defensively. You don't have any floor balance. You're not scoring to make John Wall take it out of bounds, instead of pushing it up every time at full speed. It hurts you on both ends."
These weren't offered as excuses, but rather as facts to reporters who wanted to know what LeBron's absence meant to the Cavs. Of course they looked different.
The only thing that made it slightly complicated was a loss to a surging Toronto team two nights before. "The Toronto game," Lue said. "Kyle Lowry had an unbelievable game. Outside of that, I think we've been playing good basketball. ... Kyle just happened to get going. But Kyrie [shooting] 4-11, Kevin [shooting] 5-15, [and] we were up 13, 14 the majority of that game. We feel good."
The Cavs aren't worried about Toronto. And they probably don't need to be. Remember the Hawks last year? As the year unfolded, the buzz grew about all the different ways Atlanta could give this Cavs team trouble on both ends of the floor. It started when the Hawks went to Cleveland in December and won by 29 points.
By their next meeting in March, there was even more hype. Can the Hawks hang? How will Cleveland respond? Another Cavs loss: 107-98, and more questions for the playoffs.
A few months later, Atlanta was swept out of the playoffs by Cleveland. If you want to point to the DeMarre Carroll injury or the struggles of Kyle Korver, go for it. But there's no rule that says we have to make the Eastern Conference playoffs complicated. If LeBron is playing, LeBron's team isn't losing in seven games.
"I'm not going to finger point on one thing," Kyrie Irving said Sunday afternoon, "because about a week ago we were winning games."
A week ago they beat the Thunder on the road, on national television, and looked like the second–best team in basketball. Kyrie Irving sees the big picture, and so should everyone else.
But what makes this Cavs team so fascinating is what the big picture actually looks like. It's true that the Raptors loss is ultimately meaningless, the Wizards game meant even less without LeBron, and the Cavs don't need to be worried past this weekend. It's also true that between Friday and Sunday was Saturday, when Steph Curry exploded for another 46 points, a game-winner from 40 feet, two NBA records, and a million broken brains across the basketball world. It's the biggest story in the NBA.
The Warriors are radiating joy right now. You know this. Saturday was just the latest example. But looking at Cleveland a day later, I couldn't help but wonder about the other side of that coin.
There were still three players making $80 million on the court in D.C., and Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving got blown off the court by a Wizards team that almost lost to the 76ers on Friday. LeBron walked off the bench and back to the locker room about halfway through the fourth quarter.
"I thought RJ [Richard Jefferson] was playing hard," Lue said. "I thought Mozzy kept playing hard and playing tough. That's about it."
Lue pulled his starters when the lead went to 21 in the third quarter. As a somber J.R. Smith explained it: "We weren't playing the way we're supposed to play. Weren't executing on offense, damn sure wasn't playing defense."
But then Lue put Irving back in for the fourth to play from 30 points down next to Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson. Afterward, reporters asked Lue if he was sending a message to his point guard, and he nodded. When Kyrie was asked about it, he claimed he wanted back in, because he wanted to play basketball.
Whatever happened there, Lue was also asked if he'd expected others to step up in LeBron's absence. He smirked, and said only, "You would think so."
Days like Sunday make you wonder. There are bigger questions in play for the next few months than whether Cleveland makes the Finals. If David Blatt's apparently laissez-faire approach to superstars wasn't working, are we sure Tyronn Lue's confrontational style will work any better? Why did this team give him a three-year deal before they had an answer?
Kyrie Irving had 28 points Sunday, but the team was down 29 when he finally left the game in the fourth quarter. When does LeBron ask why Irving can't shoulder any of the responsibilities that he's shouldered his entire career? What happens to Kevin Love in Cleveland if they lose to Golden State and he's both the weak link on defense, and the most valuable asset they have to trade?
For a team's that's been in first place all year, nobody looks all that comfortable. How much of the angst in Cleveland can be traced directly to the Bay Area? Is Steph Curry driving everyone insane? Or does the emotional fatigue start with the player who took Sunday off?
LeBron's been to the Finals five years in a row, so one more trip is meaningless if he's not winning. He's also getting older. When he takes a day off, the rest of the roster shouldn't be as helpless as it was in D.C.. If Friday's loss told everyone not to overthink the next few months, Sunday was a reminder that we have no idea where this goes in the next few years. There's at least a possibility that Steph Curry will drive LeBron James insane, and everyone will get traded.
It's both funny and cruel that things have worked out this way. LeBron's first stint in Cleveland was sabotaged by management's impatience to win a championship, as one crazy Larry Hughes deal turned into another desperate Shaq trade. Now the Cavs are contenders again, but the impatience starts with LeBron. He's the one walking back to the locker room, getting coaches fired (or not), and publicly questioning his team's mental toughness after a Toronto game that really shouldn't have been a big deal.
It wasn't always like this. For a few months last year, everything went according to plan. After the Smith and Mozgov trades but before the Kevin Love injury, it all clicked. Everyone was firing on all cylinders. They blitzed Steph Curry and the Warriors 110-99 almost exactly a year ago, on February 26th.
I asked J.R. Smith about trying to find that version of this team, and he said, "Some guys talk about it, some guys don't. I try not to dwell on what we did last year. Talking about last year's not going to help us right now. We gotta figure out what's wrong with us. Hopefully we'll figure it out tomorrow against Indiana."
I'm sure they will, because Indiana's not very good. Likewise, the Cavs can stay confident through meaningless losses in Toronto and D.C., and that makes perfect sense. Big picture, it's crazy to imagine any scenario in which the Cavs don't make the Finals. But it's also hard to imagine any scenario that doesn't end with a loss to Golden State. And then what?