INDIANAPOLIS — The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers gave up 70 points in the first half of a game, David Blatt was fired four days later. So, it’s understandable if seeing Cleveland trail the Indiana Pacers 70-61 at halftime en route to a 123-109 loss Wednesday caused some alarm bells to go off.
With just four games left in the regular season, including the Pacers game, the Cavs came into the night having won four in a row with a chance to build on that momentum and come closer to locking up the No. 1 seed in the East.
Cleveland left Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a loss in which it allowed Indiana to shoot 56.3 percent from the field — its worst defensive performance since Miami shot 54.8 percent against the Cavs in a rout nearly three weeks ago — and a chorus of questions as to whether they’re really ready for when the playoffs start in a week and a half.
Before we get on the seesaw and start figuring out the meaning of such a lopsided loss in the midst of what had been a pretty solid stretch of Cavs basketball, let’s consider the following set of circumstances: Cleveland was playing on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, against an Indiana team that’s fighting for its playoff hopes, without LeBron James.
Any one of those four factors could explain a defeat like Wednesday’s. Put all four of them together, especially James being out, and it’s relatively easy to rationalize Wednesday’s loss as something that isn’t an indicator of problems that lie ahead.
In fact, when coach Tyronn Lue was asked about the loss dropping the Cavs’ record to 1-4 this season without James and 4-14 without him over the last two seasons, Lue just ignored the trend and chose to talk about what he did like in the game.
“The positive out of this is I felt we played great offensively,” Lue said. “I thought we had struggled to score against this team, even with LeBron. I thought offensively we moved the ball, we got some good shots. We ran some good stuff offensively. Just defensively, we didn’t take the challenge tonight. I didn’t think we were physical enough. I thought we were able to run free and roam free and then once we tried to pick our aggressiveness up, they had already made shots and they were already comfortable.”
There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, and James has never missed a playoff game in his career, so Lue can be forgiven for avoiding that line of questioning.
He did offer one veiled criticism of the defense when asked about the Cavs’ rim protection. Without naming names, he put the onus on Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith on the perimeter, rather than Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson in the paint.
“I just think on the point of entry, which is 1-on-1, we have to do a better job of guarding the ball,” Lue said. “I think some teams are cracking us off the dribble [with screens], but we have to be pulled in on the weak side, shrinking the floor and then we got to be able to build back out.”
While it’s a legitimate gripe with Irving — the bubble he allows opposing point guards to occupy without any resistance at times can be maddening — even he had some true bright spots to his game in Indiana. After going just 24-for-82 (29.3 percent) in his previous four games before this back-to-back, he shot 16-for-27 (59.3 percent) the past two nights, accounting for the first time he shot 55 percent or better in consecutive games since right before the All-Star break.
Along with Irving, there was Kevin Love scoring 23 points in only 19 minutes, shooting 3-for-5 from 3 and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. That continued his strong play in the last nine games, when he has averaged 19.4 points and 42.4 percent shooting from 3.
“I just wanted to pick my spots and shoot the shots that are there, miss or make,” Love said. “Just going out there and playing and taking my mental out of it, taking however my body feels out of it, just going out there and playing has really helped me.”
Love did feel his back “lock up,” according to Lue, after colliding with Mozgov for a rebound in the second half, but Love was able to return to the game and said his back would be “fine” moving forward.
Which, is really, the same status the Cavs can continue to claim even with the loss to the Pacers.
“We still have momentum,” Lue said. “We have the best player in the world on our team. He didn’t play tonight.”