Kevin Durant scored 32, Stephen Curry added 23 and the Warriors 6-0 run 3 minutes into the 4th quarter dealt the Cleveland Cavaliers’ their fourth straight loss this season.
It was also the fifth dropped game in six and ninth in twelve for a 25-17 Cleveland team. They now sit third in the East, 7.5 games behind the Celtics.
This most recent loss drops them into a race for third in the East with teams 3-9 separated by just five games.
How does this happen to a team that has reached the last three NBA Finals and the NBA’s star player that played in the last seven?
A combination of scheduling, the unexpected Isaiah Thomas injury, and poor play has doomed the team.
Cleveland’s late December and early January has been unnaturally road heavy. Only three games in this twelve game stretch have been at home, and two of those home games were wins.
They have also traveled to playoff teams Milwaukee, Golden State, Boston, Toronto, and Indiana and hosted the Warriors again.
But the “second best team in the league” should win at least one and more likely half of their games against playoff opponents.
The streak started with a late loss and three defeats (Milwaukee, Utah and Indiana) were by three points or less. The failure to make shots late in games is a major result of the loss of Kyrie Irving.
LeBron already got the ball in the majority of late game situations, but now, without his partner in crime, the star player must shoot every last-minute shot. This is a huge burden, even for one of the top players of all-time.
Cleveland has also been dealt four blowouts in which they lost by at least 14 points. This includes back to back 127-99 and 133-99 shellackings at Minnesota and Toronto. There’s bad games and then there’s these drubbings. They are simply unacceptable for a championship contending team.
Despite the departure of Irving, who averaged 25.2 points and 5.8 assists in 2016-17, general offense is not the problem.
Isaiah Thomas did not play his first game until January 2nd and had to sit out Boston and Indiana as he gets up to speed. When Cleveland made the trade, they did not expect such a debilitating injury and it may take until March for them to reap Thomas’s full offensive and defensive production.
Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, and Jeff Green have picked up the production, however. Cleveland scores 109.5 points per game, just shy of their 2016-17 total of 110.3.
Instead, the team is yet to fill the defensive void that Kyrie left after his trade to Boston. They now give up 108.7 points, 5th from last in the league in that statistic.
From those additions, only Wade is known for his defense, and at 35 years old he has certainly lost a step. Against teams as stacked as the Warriors or Celtics, LeBron can only defend one player. This leaves the rest to wreak havoc on such an offensive-minded team.
At the beginning of the losing streak, many fans did not see a problem. After all, Cleveland’s focus is in June, not January. They made the Finals last year despite a second place finish in the East.
But if the Cavs keep this up for much longer, they could find themselves in a real battle for home court in even the first round of the playoffs.
The only way out seems to be a trade. There is not much in-season coaching that Tyronn Lue and LeBron can do to turn a team that is built to score points into one that is willing to play defense like one run by Brad Stevens or Gregg Popovich.
Cleveland has assets in Brooklyn’s first round pick as well as maybe one of the offensive players that have picked up the slack for Irving.
DeAndre Jordan has already been linked to Cleveland, and players such as Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, Rodney Hood, Wesley Matthews, and Avery Bradley could also be on the cards.
Whatever Cleveland does, they should do it fast before the train goes completely off the tracks.
The schedule really doesn’t get any easier as they host Orlando and Oklahoma City before traveling to San Antonio and a home and home with Detroit.
Right now the Cavs are losing ground on the Celtics and Raptors. In February, they could find themselves out of a home playoff spot.