The Cleveland Cavaliers have approached this season with one clear goal — winning the franchise’s first NBA title. That’s not an especially rare pursuit, but few teams have ever made it so clear that anything short of a championship will mean failure. LeBron James mentions it regularly (including in advertisements), David Blatt lost his job despite holding the best record in the conference, and Kevin Love has been the subject of trade rumors when virtually everyone agrees neither Blatt nor Ty Lue (nor LeBron?) has utilized him properly. Stakes are high, and every misstep brings concern.
Those worries are especially serious after Sunday’s 113-99 loss to the Washington Wizards at the Verizon Center, the Cavaliers’ third in four games. Although Cleveland can fall back on the excuse of not having LeBron James, who sat out for rest, but it was an uninspiring performance overall. Lue mass-substituted the starters after the margin ballooned from nine to 19 after a few minutes of the third quarter, and the Cavs trailed by as many as 30 on their way to a comfortable loss.
At least one Cav was aware of the team’s deficiencies. It was just an unlikely one — career-long enigma J.R. Smith. From Dave McMenamin for ESPN.com:
After a 113-99 loss to the Washington Wizards on Sunday, Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith said his level of concern is “extremely high” regarding the state of his team, which has suddenly lost three of its last four games.
“We can’t play basketball like this going down the stretch,” Smith said of the Cavs, whose lead over the Toronto Raptors for the top seed in the Eastern Conference now sits at just 1½ games. “There’s 24, 25 games left in the year and you talk about contending, being a championship contender and get blown out by a team. … After losing a game to the No. 2 team in the East then you come out and get thrashed and make it look good at the end.
“We can’t do that. If we’re serious about who we’re supposed to be, then we can’t do this.” […]
“I wasn’t surprised,” Smith said of the [substitution] move. “We weren’t playing the way we were supposed to play. We weren’t executing our offense. We damn sure weren’t playing defense. So I wasn’t surprised at all.” […]
“If you lose a game like the other night to a team like Toronto and come out here and play the way we did and you had a lack of energy, maybe we shouldn’t be in this position,” Smith said. “I don’t know. It’s tough. If we’re going to play with a lack of energy after losing a game on the road and come out and play the way we did today, then we shouldn’t be who we are and be in these uniforms.”
[Tristan] Thompson agreed with Smith, calling the loss “embarrassing.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Cavalies would lose a game without LeBron to a Wizards team that came in at 27-30 — to make an inexact comparison, the Warriors have struggled against teams with similar records without Stephen Curry. But it’s nevertheless a pretty bad look for a team that lost Friday to the Toronto Raptors, their closest competition at the top of the East, and at home to the Charlotte Hornets last Tuesday. That subpar run isn’t close to enough to knock the Cavaliers off their perch as East favorites, but it will create more doubts and increase pessimism over their ability to beat the eventual West champion in the NBA Finals.
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What is surprising is that all this criticism came from J.R. Smith, a player who has never been synonymous with professionalism and a champion’s heart. His reputation, including a poor showing against Golden State last June, pretty much guarantees that people will view his statements as lacking some credibility.
In this case, though, it’s also fairly apparent that Smith has a point. The Cavaliers have not been especially inspiring this season, particularly given that the firing of Blatt and hiring of Lue was supposed to bring a faster-paced offense and put everyone on the same page. This is not how a title contender should expect to play, and the Cavs know it.
The good news is that Cleveland should have plenty of time to work out these problems — despite the Raptors’ ascendance, it’s not obvious that they will face serious competition in the East playoffs. After all, Toronto still needs to prove that it can win a single series.
However, this Cavs’ season has been sold as about much more than merely representing the conference against a better-equipped contender from the West. The main takeaway from Smith’s comments shouldn’t be that they come from a questionable source — it’s that the argument is strong enough to make sense coming from anyone.
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