CHICAGO – The last time LeBron James played at United Center, he arrived in full Chicago Cubs regalia and good-naturedly gave the network TV cameras an extended “perp walk” as he paid off a friendly World Series wager to his bud, Dwyane Wade.
The Cavaliers lost that night, but it was a mere blip on their radar, having won 13 of 17 games to open the 2016-17 regular season. Following the 111-105 defeat on Dec. 2, Cleveland were right back at it, stringing together five consecutive victories and 13 of 15 to edge into the New Year at 26-7.
Then the Cavs lost to the Bulls again, this time at the Q on Jan. 4.
That was the start of a 21-19 stretch, a veritable half season’s worth of mediocrity that lingers to this day. So when the Cavaliers face a Chicago team Thursday (8 ET on TNT) that is 3-0 against them this season (another loss on Feb. 25) and 6-1 overall in the Bulls’ otherwise unremarkable Fred Hoiberg era, the last thing on their minds will be the Cubs, the Indians or the start of a new baseball season in a matter of days.
The 2017 NBA Finals loom much larger than the World Series for Cleveland and its fans at the moment. And the hand-wringing over the Cavs’ ability to defend their title has begun in force.
“We know we have the culture here,” point guard Kyrie Irving told reporters Wednesday after the team’s practice. “We know we have the guys. We know when we're not playing up to our level. We just allow it to pass and pass and it turns out to [be a mess].”
“That's no excuse – ‘Just wait till the playoffs’ – we’ve got to get better now. We know that.”
Not since their 108-97 Game 4 loss in Oakland, dropping them into a 3-1 hole in the Finals, have the Cavaliers looked so vulnerable. Over the past six games, during which they’ve gone 2-4, they’ve been outscored by an average of 12 points, been beaten on the boards by 6.6 nightly and are letting opponents shoot 50.9 percent from the field. Over the past five, Cleveland’s preferred starting five – James, Irving, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith – are minus-26 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats.
Injuries have hurt, not just in the manpower lost but in the effectiveness of those players upon return. Love has been limited to 26.1 minutes per game and 13.5 points, while shooting 31.3 percent from the arc and 42.6 percent overall, since returning from left knee surgery that sidelined him for five weeks. Smith had thumb surgery, was out for 10 weeks and has been making only 27.3 percent of his 3-point attempts since.
Deep threat Kyle Korver will have missed nine of 12 games with foot soreness when he sits out again against Chicago Thursday. And another in-season acquisition, guard Deron Williams, still is fitting in; his per-36 numbers with Cleveland (12.3 points, 6.0 assists) pale next to his career numbers (17.2, 8.5).
Andrew Bogut? His Cavs career lasted less than a minute before he suffered a broken leg. And it’s unclear whether another former Bucks center, rusty Larry Sanders, will actually help.
Just blending it all together would be challenge enough, even if the pieces were performing well. Said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue: “There's been a lot of in and outs to the rotation. We understand that's part of the game. We just got to catch up.”
The time is now. With the Golden State Warriors reasserting their supremacy in the West this week with back-to-back victories at Houston and at San Antonio, Cleveland hasn’t inspired much confidence bumping along at 6-9 in March.
If there’s a bright side as they head into their 12th road game this month, the Cavaliers are awake and as determined as Rajai Davis choking up at 2-2 and preparing to turn on a 97-mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman.
Irving, for example, went back to the court late Monday night in San Antonio to work on his shot. He and James reportedly had a private heart-to-heart conversation after that 103-74 spanking by the Spurs. There’s not much talk at the moment of tapering toward the postseason, though Lue has cited fatigue as a potential factor in the team’s fade.
And don’t expect James and crew to be amused by the Bulls’ cute li’l TNT-telecast home winning streak. It became in Feburary 2013, is up to 19 consecutive victories and counting, and figures to get mentioned prominently heading toward tipoff at United Center Thursday. But to the Cavaliers, it’s a fluke and an irritant that has nothing to do with them.
There wasn’t supposed to be much push-back in the East this season. By the end of March a year ago, only Toronto was within 8.5 games of Cleveland in the conference. Now the Celtics, the Wizards and the Raptors all have been emboldened by the defending champs’ sputters, hoping to mess up plans laid by many last summer for a rubber-match Finals.
This season supposedly was going to be a challenge for the Cavs because of its lack of urgency. That’s not the issue anymore.
“We’ve got to get better now," Lue told reporters. “That's no excuse – ‘Just wait till the playoffs’ – we’ve got to get better now. We know that.”
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