San Antonio Spurs elbow Cleveland Cavaliers out of first place in East

LeBron James after the rout: 'I'm not worried about anything'

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

SAN ANTONIO — When it comes to hard-hitting, the investigations into the White House’s link to Russia have nothing on the right elbow of Spurs forward David Lee, swung at the lethal speed of roughly .0001 miles per hour.

And if you doubt this, just check the replay of Monday’s Spurs-Cavs game and how that elbow struck the upper back area of one of the biggest and strongest and fittest players in the NBA, who walked a few feet after impact and then collapsed to the floor where he lay motionless for an estimated 56 seconds. LeBron James had to be helped to his feet and led to the locker room, never to return.

“Honestly?” said Lee, eyes wide and dumbfounded, “I didn’t even know I hit him.”

Well, that’s the point. Neither LeBron or the Cavs know what’s been hitting them lately as they’ve regressed from running the Eastern Conference to sitting in the very unfamiliar position of second place. Or to put it more succinctly, they’ve gone from kicking behind to staring at the one above them belonging to the Celtics, at least for now.

The smell test is rather foul therefore, as you can imagine, but scents can be deceiving. That’s how the Cavaliers choose to see their current state, as a mere blip in the 82-game road. They’ve now lost eight of 13 and were most recently sledgehammered 103-74 by the Spurs, but it’s late March and the playoffs are beckoning and besides, sometimes stuff happens.

“I’m not worried about anything,” said LeBron.

Spoken like a man who believes whatever ails the Cavs can be readily fixed, and perhaps so. They still have LeBron, and Kyrie Irving, and a now-healthy Kevin Love. And they still play in a conference in which they’ve dominated for nearly three seasons with no formidable challenger in sight.

That said, the Cavs’ defense is far from being in championship shape. Over the past few weeks they’ve been chopped up by John Wall (37 points), D’Angelo Russell (40), James Harden (38), Tim Hardaway Jr (36) and then Kawhi Leonard (25) Monday. At times they’ve looked uninspired, maybe under-motivated or even bored, lacking the edge and fangs they’ll need come playoff time in case they run up against a team that senses vulnerability with the Cavs and feels it has a shot to keep LeBron from making a seventh-straight trip to the Finals.

“It matters more that we’re playing our best basketball going into the playoffs, the type we know we can play. We’ve done it before.”

LeBron James

Actually, the only prize at stake right now is best record in the East, which only ensures that the holder will host a seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals against the No. 2 team if it reaches that point. Is that such an important goal that must be secured here in the stretch run of another grueling regular season, or simply a slight playoff edge that may or may not have any bearing on the ultimate outcome?

Everyone took the it’s-no-big-deal approach, which you can understand from a team that suddenly isn’t in first place any longer.

“It matters more that we’re playing our best basketball going into the playoffs,” said LeBron, “the type we know we can play. We’ve done it before.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich also poured cold water on the best-record-or-bust mentality and didn’t place a high priority on it.

“Some years where we lost (in the playoffs) I thought we were the best team, and some years we won I wondered how in the hell did we do that?” Popovich said. “You’d like to have (best record) than not have it. Nobody will turn down a 1-seed. But we’ve won championships without it. In order to win a championship you’re going to have to win on the road anyway. If you don’t win on the road, you don’t win championships.”

And Cavs coach Tyronne Lue took it a step further:

“Going into the playoffs healthy is the biggest thing. Health is the most important thing, not the best record and home court. We didn’t have the No. 1 seed in the Finals (last year).”

Ah, perspective. It allows the Cavs to either ignore or downplay the drudgery of the last few weeks and prevent a sense of panic from settling in. That, along with the unshakable swagger that comes from being defending champs, is what keeps the Cavs feeling like a first place team even if the current facts suggest otherwise.

They came to San Antonio in need of a signature win if only to cease all of the outside chatter, but instead they fed the slowly growing perception that the Cavs could use a wakeup call. The Spurs socked them right from the jump and kept the blows coming, jumping to a 24-point halftime lead.

Then, just before the end of the third quarter, Lee out-fought James for a rebound and in the process hit James with what looked like a tap from the elbow. LeBron reached behind him, then jogged up court, then suddenly fell to the floor.

He didn’t return, but the Spurs were up big anyway, leaving the coaches to empty their benches and send in the mop-up crew for much of the fourth quarter.

LeBron said the elbow caught him in a sensitive area of the spine. That reaction by LeBron had Lee scratching his head. Didn’t matter much; LeBron finished with a season-low 17 points and had his shot blocked twice, while the Cavs once again appeared snoozy throughout the game.

Maybe the Cavs aren’t too worried about the big picture because, deep down, they know what they’re up against. None of the teams chasing Cleveland in the East have gone through the fire in the playoffs and emerged without a burn. These first-place Celtics haven’t reached the conference finals with their current personnel. Nor have the Wizards. The Raptors did make the Cavs sweat last year in the East finals but struggled in the two previous rounds.

Also: Cleveland has LeBron and the others do not.

And he’s healthy, aside from that inadvertent elbow by Lee.

There’s plenty of time to shore up deficiencies and get the mind right and rediscover the killer instinct that fueled them to rally from 3-1 down to the Warriors last summer. The feeling is the Cavs won’t be pressed until the second round at the very earliest, and could return to the NBA Finals without playing a seventh game in the East should they, as LeBron suspects, get themselves together.

“We know what we have to do,” said LeBron. “We’ve been there before.”

According to LeBron, in order for someone to send the Cavs to the canvas for a full count, it’ll take their best shot. He just hopes nobody aims for the upper back, right along the spine.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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