It was a glimmer, borne of increasing desperation.
“Coach was just looking for a lineup that worked,” Jae Crowder said.
But, already down 18 to the Houston Rockets early in the second quarter on Thursday, the Cleveland Cavaliers had to find five guys that could actually stay in front of their opponents. If injuries have been the main story of their up and down season so far, their defensive dysfunction has been the B story, the part of the sitcom structure involving a secondary character -- which could be why Jeff Green wound up right in the middle of one of the NBA’s most successful episodic series.
Cleveland is 30th in the league in Defensive Rating (112 points per 100 possessions), continuing a trend that saw the Cavs plummet to 29th in the defensive rankings the second half of last season. It didn’t matter as Cleveland strafed the Eastern Conference en route to a third straight Finals appearance, because the Golden State Warriors ripped the Cavs’ D apart in The Finals, putting them on skates with actions they weren’t used to guarding.
The Cavs’ D has stayed bad this season. In the last six games, per NBA.com/Stats, they’re 24th in the league in fast break points allowed and 26th in points in the paint allowed. The latter is certainly related to the absence of Tristan Thompson, who coach Tyronn Lue had put back in the starting lineup earlier this month, only to see him go down with a calf injury that will keep him out several weeks.
That puts Kevin Love back in at center, a position that wears him down physically over the long haul. But Cleveland doesn’t have many roster options at present, which is why Green’s play in Houston raised a cockle or two of hope.
There are nights when Green still looks like the fifth pick in the Draft, which he was, back in 2007. But, most of his career, he’s hit a ceiling of a solid role player, as he’s been for the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder and other contenders over the years. This, though, was one of the former nights.
My first year in Miami, we had to figure that thing out, too. At one point, we were 9-8. ... You watch film, you get better, you get on the floor, you compete. And you figure things out.”
Against the Rockets, Green was suddenly unstoppable offensively -- posting, shooting, filling the lanes in transition -- en route to 20 second-quarter points. More important, though, was his ability to guard James Harden effectively on switches, staying in front of the MVP candidate time and time again, and making him shoot over length. Cleveland’s lineup of Green, James, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Dwyane Wade got the Cavs back in the game, and Cleveland’s team defense against Harden was as good as anyone could expect -- even though Harden finished with a triple-double, he only made 8 of 21 shots from the floor.
It was just one game -- one that Cleveland ultimately lost as the Rockets crushed them on the boards in the fourth quarter. At one point, Houston had a basketball power play -- five consecutive possessions produced by four straight offensive rebounds. But the Cavs did find something that worked defensively, if just for a while, against a quality opponent. Right now, with Thompson out, that will have to do.
“There were some great moments by our second-quarter lineup that kind of allowed us to stay home with their shooters,” James said, while cautioning that the film would reveal mistakes, too. “We kept bodies on bodies. We was able to rebound when they missed, and we was able to get out and not only run, but execute as well. I think we can take something from it, but I’m looking forward to watching the film as well.”
With the Boston Celtics chemically unable to lose at the moment, first place in the Eastern Conference could already be in danger of going bye-bye by the All-Star break. That didn’t matter last season, of course, when the Cavs again ran roughshod through the East and made a third straight Finals appearance. But this is a new Cavs team, which hasn’t been together for three seasons like that core group -- one that featured James, as ever, but also had Kyrie Irving available to destroy defenses that had to give him space to operate.
That may well happen again once Isaiah Thomas returns from his hip injury. But for now, with Thomas out and Derrick Rose again slowed by various injuries, Cleveland’s not all there yet.
The Cavs’ rotation has been chaotic for a month. Rose has an ankle injury, which has left Shumpert to play point guard with the starters. (The Cavs don’t believe that veteran Jose Calderon, signed in the summer, is an option to play big minutes against elite NBA point guards, per a team source.) Lue tried Wade with the starting lineup, but didn’t like the flow -- or J.R. Smith’s displeasure with losing his starting job -- and put Smith back in with the starters, with Wade coming off the bench. But bringing Wade off the bench as the backup point guard affected the flow of the reserve unit.
“It’s a different dynamic,” James said last week. “My first year in Miami, we had to figure that thing out, too. At one point, we were 9-8 (but ultimately made The Finals -- the first of seven straight Finals appearances and counting for James).
“You just figure it out. You watch film, you get better, you get on the floor, you compete. And you figure things out.”
But that Miami team’s core group was much younger. James was 25 on opening night in 2010. Wade was 28. Chris Bosh was 26. Mario Chalmers was 24. By contrast, at an average age of 29.2 years per player, this year’s Cavs’ team is the oldest team in the league.
James will be 33 in late December. Wade is 35. Smith is 32. Love and Rose are 29. Thomas is 28. Now, Crowder and Shumpert are just 27, and Thompson is just 26. But most of the new faces on this year’s Cavs are, well, old faces -- ones that aren’t in shape yet, to boot.
“We’re trying to figure it out,” said Crowder, one of many players trying to improve his cardiovascular condition -- but while also mourning the death of his mother, Helen Thompson, in September. James also is working on his wind; he missed most of training camp dealing with a sprained left ankle, and he turned his ankle in the first quarter again in Houston, though he returned to the game.
Almost everyone wanted a shorter preseason, but there were residual impacts -- which may have impacted a veteran team like Cleveland’s more acutely than others.
“This was new,” Wade said. “Normally, the first game of the year is around Halloween or somewhere. You’re seven games in by that time (this season). You could see, even though guys came to camp in good shape, it wasn’t game shape, and the games happened real fast. It took a while. It definitely impacted it a little bit.”
In Love’s case, the issue is more his frame. He remade his body when he came to Cleveland in 2014, knowing he’d play a lot of stretch four rather than banging in the post as he did as the star on the Minnesota Timberwolves. But, now, the Cavs need him to bang in the post and protect the rim. Those are not among Love’s more prodigious skills.
“In some cases, you kind of have conserve energy, just ‘cause you’re so much a part of the offense and defense, both sides of the ball,” Love said. “For me, it’s just trying to find ways to get my body prepared for that. The four on this team is more perimeter oriented, a spacer …
“More than anything, it’s probably listening to my body. The thing is, it’s early in the season, so I feel fresh. I don’t know how in the next four to six weeks, how it will be. (Washington’s Marcin) Gortat’s a load, playing everybody’s biggest guy, being in every pick and roll at the offensive and defensive end. We just have to see. I have to continue to get in better shape, lift … and making sure my mind is wrapped around playing center. Keeping that in my head that every night, I’m going to be playing five.”
Thomas works up a major sweat in pregame shooting drills, and while a return doesn’t appear imminent, he seems well on his way to return before the mid-January date the Cavs set before the season. He will have to do a lot of five-on-five work in practice before anyone, including him, feels comfortable with him returning to play.
He’s also been working on strengthening both his quads and hamstrings to help his hip when he gets back.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Thomas said after his pre-game workout last week.
When he comes back, the Cavs will dust off a lot of the sets they used to feature Irving alongside James. Defenses will no longer have the luxury of going underneath pick and rolls, as they do with Rose. The Cavs don’t want to change Rose; he’s a driver and finisher, not a spot-up shooter. But their offense is different when it’s not spaced. James is used to probing the defense from up top, finding the weakness and getting the ball there. Almost always, it’s someone shooting an open 3-pointer or dunking.
Again, Cleveland will have to adjust on the fly. And in April, all of this may be a distant, funny memory as the Cavs once again start to steamroll the East in the playoffs. They still have the best player on earth, and he is still at the height of his playmaking and scoring powers (especially when teams like the Washington Wizards choose not to double him when he gets rolling, and he proceeds to drop 57 on their beans).
But, it seems clear -- making an eighth straight Finals, with this older team, with an injured star uncertain of his future, with chemistry now just a word rather than a long-eanred reality in his locker room, and with Boston looming, desperate for revenge – this will be James’ greatest feat ever.
“Things aren’t always going to be as good as you would like them to be or figure it should be,” he said. “But if you continue to work great habits and continue to get better at something you’re not so good at at that point in time, with the talent, it will start to kick in, as long as you’re working good habits.”
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