The Cavs came out reaching on defense, racking up fouls (both legitimate and questionable, admittedly), yet managing to keep things close for much of the first half. Shortly before the end of the second quarter, however, Cleveland rolled over. The Clippers entered the break with a 12-point lead, and they never looked back to check on the lackadaisical Cavs during a 113-94 win
One second-half sequence was particularly devastating — and illuminating — for LeBron James' squad. With just over 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter and Cleveland still within striking distance, Kyrie Irving put his head down and went to the rim. He missed a contested layup, and the Cavaliers watched as DeAndre Jordan got an easy bucket in transition the other way. On the very next play, LeBron bricked a relatively open jumper early in the shot clock, and J.J. Redick and Jordan ran a two-man fastbreak against minimal resistance, ending in an alley-oop dunk for the big man. Game over.
Then there was that whole J.R. Smith kerfuffle the game before in Milwaukee, when the Cleveland shooting guard decided that a Bucks inbound pass was the perfect time to greet Jason Terry on the sideline, giving up a wide-open layup.
J.R. long ago reached that “J.R. being J.R.” level, but even by his standards, that mistake was egregious. It's the kind of thing that happens only when you're content with the title you won the past summer, and it's emblematic of how the Cavaliers are approaching the regular season right now.
Of course, this is the champion's prerogative. The Golden State Warriors are the team that has to do all the soul-searching that comes with blowing a 3-1 lead. They have to figure out how to add a new player in the immensely talented Kevin Durant. The Cavs, meanwhile, get to sit back, depend on the level of play they established last season, and wait for the Finals to roll around.
That's all well and good, although Golden State's recent surge might have Cleveland slightly concerned. But if we accept that the reigning champs are afforded a little leeway, the question still remains: When should the Cavaliers flip the switch?
The answer might be sooner than you think — and the problem is defense.
LeBron, Irving, Kevin Love, Smith, and the rest of the Cavs know how to get the ball in the basket, after all. Give them a week or two of actual focused play and they'll click on offense at their typically elite level.
Defense is more complicated — an ever-evolving relationship based on trust, communication and knowing your partners — and in the crucible that is the NBA playoffs, the slightest misstep can mean the difference between defending your title or watching KD lift the Larry O'Brien trophy. Waiting until the very end of the regular season to lock in would be too late for the Cavs, who are currently 15th in defensive rating. (Typically, an NBA champion has a top-10 offense and defense; it's one of the calling cards of modern title contenders.)
Fortunately, LeBron knows that. For the best example of a team cruising until turning it on at just the right moment, we need look no further than the King's second title in Miami.
Seventeen games into the 2012-13 season, the defending champion Heat were a below-average defensive team coasting to a 12-5 record. By the time February rolled around, there was nothing particularly inspiring about that Miami team. They seemed to be going through the motions, capping their malaise with a Feb. 1 loss to an Indiana Pacers team that would later push the Heat to their limits in the Eastern Conference finals.
You probably remember what happened next. Miami won 27 straight games, losing just twice the rest of the season, before eventually beating the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals for LeBron's second ring. And the Heat did it with defense. By the end of the year, Miami had become so suffocating that they ended up seventh in defensive rating for the entire season, including their lazy start.
The timing was perfect. For three months, LeBron and his teammates rested, doing what they needed to do to stay competitive in the battle for homecourt advantage while making sure nobody got injured or overexerted themselves. Right before the All-Star break, they slowly started to crank up the intensity, peaking as they entered the playoffs.
That's the blueprint for what the Cavs are trying to do this year. So if you're planning on watching Cleveland this season, maybe keep that in mind the rest of the way. The next two months could be pretty disappointing. By February, though, the Cavaliers should be rounding into championship form.