The Cleveland Cavaliers have three Eastern Conference championships and one NBA title to show for their last three seasons. They’ve also had an annual funk the team falls into during that span, too, and it seems the latest edition is upon the Cavs.
After last night’s loss 102-88 loss to Boston Celtics, the Cavs are in a skid of sorts, having dropped five of their last seven games. Granted, this game was played without star guard Isaiah Thomas (who is not yet permitted to play in back-to-back games) and Cleveland was coming off a 127-110 home win vs. Portland a night earlier.
Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com points out, though, that this loss — coupled with the Cavs’ early-season run of 18 wins in 19 games getting further in the rear view mirror — has caught the attention of star forward LeBron James:
It’s not just that they’ve looked so out of sorts against the two teams that many think they will face in the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals. Until the Cavs start racking up some wins against the league’s better teams, that hot streak they put together when they reeled off 18 victories out of 19 games will look more and more hollow because it was mostly against weaker teams.
“I’m always concerned about other teams getting better and better,” James said after Wednesday’s loss. “But I’m more concerned about us getting better and better. That’s the bigger thing. Washington and obviously this team right here, Miami is trying to get better and better, Toronto is playing exceptional basketball right now. The East is pretty damn good this year, and right now we’re not so good. [We were] great, [now] not so good. See what happens next. But you’ve always got to be concerned with the competition, for sure.”
James was right to focus on the Cavs before scanning the competition. Right now, it appears their biggest challenge is figuring out how to manage the rotation and play with the new lineups that come with the integration of Tristan Thompson and Isaiah Thomas.
“It’s new for all of us, it’s new for Coach [Tyronn Lue], it’s new for us,” Thompson recently told ESPN. “T-Lue, he knows what I bring to the table; I know what he expects from me. So when the going gets tough, I know that he can rely on me to go out there and be productive.”
In 2014-15, LeBron James’ first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team went into a funk, losing six straight (and 10 of 12) games as the calendar turned to 2015. In that season, James took a two-week in-season break to recover from knee and back strains.
The following season, Cleveland’s rough patch happened in late February and early March as it lost four of eight games, capped off by a 106-103 loss to an undermanned Memphis Grizzlies team. Last season, the Cavs’ worst slump likely came as the calendar turned to 2017. From Jan. 10-25, Cleveland lost six of eight games, the last loss coming at home in OT to the Sacramento Kings.
After that game Jan. 25, 2017 game, James quickly dressed and answered a handful of questions before heading home. ”We gotta get better. That’s all,” James said then.
Flash ahead to this morning and the Cavs have some issues to address, McMenamin writes — the foremost being how to parse through a big man rotation that includes Channing Frye, Kevin Love and (the now healthy) Tristan Thompson. James acknowledged that the Cavs have to figure out their lineups while also integrating Thomas into the mix, which makes for a dicey situation.
“I don’t know who we are, what we can be until we get IT back consistently,” James said. “But we know what the program is, so it’s not like it’s a surprise he wasn’t playing tonight. We already know he won’t play in the Indiana game after we’re in Minnesota. He’s not playing back-to-backs right now. So until we get a full dosage of IT and get our rotations down and things of that nature, we’re playing well and Tristan comes back, we’re integrating him, and we haven’t played as well as of late, so we’re trying to figure that out. We’ll be fine.”
James ended his media remarks with a throwaway line that didn’t show the same level of confidence, however.
When asked if the Kyrie Irving-led Celtics were a “different” threat than last season, James retorted, “I think they were a threat last year. The [Thomas] injury affected them a lot.”
Per our John Schuhmann, the Cavs have the toughest schedule in the Eastern Conference in January (and the second-toughest in the league, behind only the Golden State Warriors). Cleveland’s next four games are all on the road and feature the Orlando Magic (Saturday), the Minnesota Timberwolves (Monday), Toronto Raptors (Thursday on TNT) and Indiana Pacers (Friday) before a home date with the Warriors (Jan. 15 on TNT).