While the rest of the NBA has presented no problems for the Cleveland Cavaliers, their own division is causing them trouble.
The Cavaliers will try to avoid their third straight loss to a Central opponent Thursday night when the Milwaukee Bucks visit for a second meeting in six days – and with Jabari Parker ready to play.
All three of Cleveland's losses have come within the division, including back-to-back road defeats against the Bucks on Saturday and Detroit on Tuesday. The Cavaliers beat Indiana at home Nov. 8 for their only divisional victory.
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Cleveland (8-3) had allowed an average of 93.9 points during an eight-game winning streak before its 108-105 loss to Milwaukee – though it came in double overtime – and a 104-99 defeat against the Pistons.
The Cavs, who had a combined 35 turnovers in the losses, won the Central last season with an 11-5 division mark.
“We are too relaxed and too nice,” LeBron James said after the loss in Detroit. “We need to get tougher, but I'm not talking about being an iron man. You have to be mentally tough, and that means performing at the best of your abilities at all times. We've got some guys who do that all the time, and some guys who don't.”
James is doing his part, averaging 31.5 points, 6.5 assists and 6.3 rebounds in the last six games while shooting 51.9 percent, including 41.9 from 3-point range.
While James and Kevin Love flourished offensively against the Bucks with 61 combined points on 21-of-45 shooting, their teammates shot 34.8 percent (16 of 46).
The struggles went across the board, but the worst offenders were J.R. Smith (4 of 14) and Mo Williams (2 of 8). Smith eclipsed 50 minutes against the Bucks and has logged nearly 87 in the last two with guards Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) out.
The Bucks (5-6) seemed to get a bit healthier against the Cavs with Parker playing just his fifth game of the season. He posted season highs with 12 points and 30 minutes – a sign that he might be returning to form after having offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL which forced him to miss the final 57 games of his rookie season.
However, an MRI on Monday revealed a sprain in his right foot, and he was initially ruled out for Milwaukee's three-game trip. Parker, though, met up with the Bucks in Cleveland, and coach Jason Kidd said hours before tip-off that he would start this game after sitting out Tuesday in Washington.
“It's not a serious injury,” Kidd said Tuesday. “The things that he's done at this point, it's all right for him to be sore.”
The Bucks also said O.J. Mayo should make his season debut after the veteran guard had been sidelined by a strained right hamstring.
Milwaukee could use both Parker and Mayo after stumbling through a 115-86 loss to the Wizards, shooting 43.1 percent while committing 19 turnovers. It was the Bucks' worst loss of the season and third defeat in four games after winning four in a row.
“We're not a secret,” Kidd said. “We're not a surprise as last year, and that means teams are going to prepare for you and you can't have any mental breakdowns. For a young team, we're still a long ways away from the mental side of our game being at the level of the best teams in this league.”
Cleveland had won four in a row in the series at Quicken Loans Arena before a 96-80 loss Dec. 31 in the most recent meeting there.