CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers have become accomplished at one thing this season, and it’s not something good.
But their ability to take the wind out of their own sails is clearly unmatched.
That may sound harsh, especially when you’re talking about such a young team that understands it’s taking part in an ongoing process.
Well, chalk up another one to painful memories, as they dropped the ball again in a 102-97 loss to visiting New York on Monday.
The Cavs built a 22-point lead, then the Knicks lost their best player in Carmelo Anthony, who suffered a right knee injury of some sort in the second quarter.
Anthony entered the night tied for the NBA scoring lead (with Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant) at 28.6 points per game. The Cavs worked their buns off when Anthony was in the game, double-teaming and just generally pestering the poor guy.
When Anthony left for good at 6:42 of the second quarter, he was 1-of-5 shooting for a measly six points, with three turnovers and no assists. His knee may have hurt, but you couldn’t have blamed Anthony if his pride felt a lot worse.
So let’s set the scene again:
The Cavs led by 22 points. Anthony was out for the game. Cavs big man Marreese Speights couldn’t miss.
Game. Set. Loss?
The Cavs’ lead dwindled to 61-49 at halftime, but that’s still a 12-point margin, folks. That’s still 61 points in 24 minutes. That’s still the type of ball movement that led Speights to a 10-of-10 shooting start, and 10 assists from Luke Walton.
Those aren’t numbers you hear every day (or most days), and they were the result of the Cavs keeping things moving and taking advantage of the Knicks’ hassle-free defense.
“We relaxed,” said Cavs coach Byron Scott. “That’s the first thing I told them at halftime – ‘You can’t relax.’”
The Knicks (36-21) are an intriguing bunch, a potential contender that no one takes too seriously. Games like these are precisely the reason why.
They stink for 24 minutes, then suddenly become unstoppable. Scott knew that at halftime. His players clearly didn’t believe him.
At the very least, they must have thought the man was overreacting.
But Scott knows the league inside and out. Most of the players are NBA understudies. And they seem to be determined to lead a hard-knock life.
Then again, you can’t really use youth as an excuse, considering the Cavs’ two rookie starters, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, were out sick.
They probably weren’t the only ones who felt like upchucking after this one, though.
Speights took four shots in the second half, and missed them all. Kyrie Irving’s three-point prayer to tie it was blocked by Tyson Chandler with about one second left. The Cavs (20-40) compiled a whopping 20 assists in the first half – and a measly five in the second.
All the things we always talk about when it comes to the Cavs, all the things that can be so beautiful – the youth, the energy, the up-and-coming swagger – are what led to their demise.
It was too much one-on-one on offense, too many mental errors on defense, not enough focus when it came to the little things.
The Knicks, meanwhile, just kept firing up 3-pointers from the perimeter and letting Amar’e Stoudemire do his thing down low.
Stoudemire always seems to play better when Anthony is out, and man, did the Knicks center put the team on his back on this night. Stoudemire outjumped, outsmarted and outhustled the Cavs to the tune of 22 points, 10-of-15 shooting and six rebounds off the bench.
Then there were the likes of J.R. Smith (18 points), Steve Novak (15, including 4-of-7 on 3s) and even the 39-year old Jason Kidd (12 points), who buried an unorthodox-but-critical 3 near the end.
The Cavs just seemed to stand around and wait for the Knicks to mess up. That sometimes happens, but on Monday, it only did for a while.
Either way, the Cavs should know better than to just hang out and watch.
Yes, they were missing Waiters and Zeller. Yes, Speights (23 points), Irving (22) and Walton (12 assists) played very well in stretches.
But no, stretches aren’t enough in this league, and at some point, the Cavs need to understand that and do something about it.