For the first time in over a year, the Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That honor belongs to the Celtics for the moment, after the Cavs got rocked by the Spurs in San Antonio tonight. Cleveland has looked like ass from the ass factory since the All Star break, and tonight’s L brings their record since the break to a decidedly mediocre 8-10. The playoffs are less than a month away, and for all the legitimate holes that playoff LeBron can mask, the Cavaliers have a ton of them and the team seems thoroughly unthreatening.
The Cavaliers have had late-season defensive struggles in the past. They entered the 2015 playoffs with the 18th-best defensive rating in the NBA, then made it to the Finals. Last season, they turned a 3-1 Finals deficit around by clamping down and playing their best defense of the season. They’ve needed to reach for another gear, and in the past, they’ve found it.
The problem is that they don’t seem to have that gear this year. The Cavaliers are currently giving up 115.1 points per 100 possessions in March, a mark that would be the worst in the NBA this season. Their interior defense is flimsy as toilet paper, and in-season signing Andrew Bogut broke his leg before he could shore it up.
Tonight, they were out-rebounded 52-40 and got blown to bits so quickly that the whole fourth quarter was garbage time. Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and Pau Gasol mauled Cleveland’s ineffective bench while Kawhi Leonard lorded over everything, looking like the best player in the game on both ends of the floor despite missing all seven of his threes. He blocked LeBron in the first quarter, right after he stole it from him and started a fast break.
Leonard finished with 25 points, six assists, six boards, and three steals in 30 efficient minutes of work. Most impressively, he seemed generally unperturbed with LeBron’s defense.
As for the Cavs, Lebron went for 17-8-8 and none of his teammates did much of anything. Kevin Love had nine points; Kyrie Irving had eight. They were outplayed by Dewayne Dedmon and Patty Mills, respectively. The bench looked even worse, and a unit led by Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Derrick Williams isn’t scaring anybody. More than anything, the team just looks worn out. The legs simply aren’t there right now. More rest is a controversial option, but it might be necessary.
Injuries have prevented the Cavs from rolling out a full-strength lineup, of course, and the Bogut injury in particular has to be incredibly frustrating. Depth is a problem for the Cavs—this becomes apparent after watching them fruitlessly chase Patty Mills around the perimeter and flail to get rebounds against Gasol—but injuries have forced them to scramble.
Assuming this group gets healthy by the playoffs, the Cavs don’t have many plus defenders on this roster. Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love are fine rebounders, but neither is any sort of interior deterrent. Iman Shumpert has gone missing all year, and Kyle Korver is no defensive stopper. Unless Larry Sanders works out, the Cavs will have to rely on their shooting and another all-world playoffs from LeBron.
The thinking that LeBron James inevitably comes alive in the playoffs and wills flawed Cavs teams over the hump is not without historical precedent. He’s done it before. However, he’s playing more minutes per game this season than he has since he was in Miami. In fact, he’s only a hair behind Kyle Lowry for the minutes per game lead in the NBA. This is impressive, especially coming off six straight Finals appearances, but it’s also ominous, seeing as how this Cavs team is incredibly thin. Part of what makes playoff LeBron so devastating is his unmatched ability to guard any player on the court and destroy opposing offenses.
Counting out LeBron in the playoffs is a fool’s errand, and even if the Celtics, Raptors, and Wizards are all looking frisky, the Cavs should still be the favorites in the East. If they make it to a date with the Warriors or Spurs, however, they’ll be fighting an uphill battle.