When the Cavs Play Half-Assed in the Playoffs, It Looks Half-Assed

It’s unanimous.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are great when they play great . . . and are bad when they play bad.

Here’s the good news:  With their huge win in Game Three on Friday night . . . and despite their excitement-tempering loss in Game Four on Sunday . . . the Cavs are knotted up 2-2 with the Boston Celtics, and still hold home-court advantage.

There are three games remaining (if necessary).  It will look like this:  Tonight in Cleveland, Thursday night in Boston, and the final game will be held Sunday in Cleveland.

The bad news is:  The Cavs spent Game Four building on the wrong game.  It was definitely an improvement over the disastrous, bizarre Game Two . . . but it was a depressing, disenchanting departure from Game Three.

If these last two games would have happened in the opposite order, everything would be different.  Cleveland fans would’ve been pretty scared to be down 1-2 to the Celtics . . . but watching the build from Game Two to Game Three to Game Four would’ve made a lot more sense.

But as it stands, it’s hard to know what to think.  Again.

It’s also hard to characterize.  From what we’ve seen so far in the playoffs, the determining factor on how well the Cavs play is not how their opponents play . . . or even how they themselves play . . . it’s how much they want to play.

 

The problems, or at least the most glaring ones, don’t necessarily seem to be the mechanics of their offensive or defensive execution.  They work fine when they’re backed by effort, focus and control.  And they inevitably shine through, intermittently, in even the cloudiest games.

The problems aren’t talent or skill based.  This season, LeBron James has more than enough talent around him.  It’s arguable that, on paper, the Cavaliers are the deepest, most multi-faceted team in the conference, if not the league.  They may not have the championship experience of the Los Angeles Lakers, but this team was built to neutralize the match-up problems created by the Orlando Magic . . . while creating massive ones of their own for every other team in the NBA.

And the problems don’t appear to be gameplan-related.  Although, that’s hard to say, considering that the Cavaliers haven’t been doing anything with any conviction in failure.  Unless that is the gameplan.  If the gameplan is having no glameplan, then there are some significant gameplan-related problems.

Instead, Cleveland’s biggest problem is a lack of sustained substance.

Game Four was a good example.  The Cavaliers showed occasional toughness and grit, more than we saw in Games One and Two . . . and kept the game within grasp for the duration, essentially.  But the intensity slipped in and out like cell phone reception while traveling through Idaho.

Sure, Rajon Rondo exploded in Game Four . . . and it appears as if the defense hasn’t committed to how they want to handle him . . . but on Sunday, the hustle was spotty at best.  The Cavs, whether true or not, looked lazy and frazzled.

  • In Game Three, the Cavs had 25 assists on 59.5% shooting (44-for-74).  They won the rebounding battle 45-30, with 11 offensive boards.  They had 12 turnovers.  And shot 91.2% (31-for-34) from the stripe.
  • The Cavs also won the fast break points battle 7-5, and had the edge in points in the paint 50-32.
  • In Game Four, the Cavs had 19 assists on 40.3% shooting (27-for-67).  They lost the rebounding battle 33-47, with three offensive boards.  They had 17 turnovers.  And shot 74.4% (29-for-39) from the stripe.
  • The Cavs also lost the fast break points battle 7-23, and got beat in points in the paint 40-50.

Obviously, there’s a difference there . . . but can it all be chalked up to the Cavs having a good Game Three and a lousy Game Four and vice versa for the Celtics?  Well, yes.

But for those who are worried about the Cavs’ effort, consider this:  Even in Game Three – where the Cavs seemed to be destroying the Celtics on both ends of the court – the Celtics were still able to grab more offensive rebounds (14 to 11 for the Cavs) and fewer turnovers (7 to 12 for the Cavs).

But statistics alone can only communicate a fraction of the underwhelming efforts the Cavs displayed.  If you saw Games Two and Four, you know what I mean.

It’s the too-frequent defensive lapses that allow Rondo to slice right to the basket and get a lay-up . . . usually after a 20-second Cavaliers possession, in which it seemed like they had to scrape and claw to score.

It’s the too-frequent “deer in the headlights” offensive possessions where it seems almost as if the Cavs had been in the middle of playing the Minnesota Timberwolves . . . and all the sudden the Boston Celtics dropped into the arena from out of nowhere, and the Cavs had no clue what to do.

It’s the too-frequent off-games by key players . . . when it seems like every opponent, even dating back to previous post-seasons, has some guy step-up with anon-game, and become a temporary star.

Am I being short-sighted, or does that really not happen in Cleveland, aside from LeBron?  If we’re talking about a true impact step-up, the last one I can remember off the top of my head is Daniel Gibson in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons.  Now, Boobie is collecting dust on the bench.

In general, it’s that the Cavs . . . even in wins . . . seem to be doing more to adjust and react to their opponents . . . as opposed to taking the first position, and forcing opponents to adjust and react to us.

During the regular season, the Cavs got into too many “cutting corners” bad habits, in which they could  expend whatever energy and effort that was necessary to vanquish the team they were playing . . . and that would be enough.  Total, 48-minute, full-roster moxie wasn’t always needed.

But this is the playoffs.

Burning anything less than a full tank is half-assed, and against these teams – with these stakes – it’s going to be exposed every time.  The Cavs can’t take possessions off.  The Cavs can’t aimlessly gamble away opportunities, they can’t turn in passive (or all out bad) quarters or halves on either side of the ball, and they can’t just expect to be able to turn it on with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter and win the game.

It’s the playoffs . . . and everything matters.  In wins and losses.

Every mistake has to teach . . . every success has to be understood . . . every opportunity has to be used wisely . . . and everyone needs to box out Rondo.  Jesus.

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