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Heading into their Monday night tilt against the Orlando Magic, the Cleveland Cavaliers have exactly one Lamar Stevens-worth of games left in the regular season. Since last week's key takeaways, a lot has changed for the Cavaliers and a lot of it has to do with them becoming a prisoner of the moment. It first came on display when LeBron James made his annual return to the town with his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Cleveland then proceeded to get molly whopped by the Lakers, the Toronto Raptors and the Chicago Bulls in the same week all while being the prisoner of the moment. Today, we'll break all that down, and more in this week's latest edition of key takeaways.
Are the Cavaliers becoming a prisoner of the moment?
Heading into last Monday's marquee matchup against Los Angeles, Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff had a very clear message to his team. Bickerstaff, of course, wanted the Cavaliers to appreciate everything LeBron James did for the organization both on and off the court. But, he also wanted Cleveland's younger players to get caught up in the hype and excitement that comes with whenever James laces up again in his hometown against his former team. At the end of the day, in Bickerstaff's eyes, this game against the Lakers was just another matchup on the team's schedule.
Unfortunately, Bickerstaff did not get his wish as his Cavaliers lost to the Lakers 131-120. After the game, Cleveland's coach was less than thrilled.
“It was terrible,” said Bickerstaff. “We did not compete at the level that we needed to compete at tonight to win this game. These are all the learning experiences that we talk about.
“We got caught up in the show and instead of doing the things we needed to do and focus on the bigger picture and the task at hand, we allowed this moment to overtake us.”
It also is an ongoing issue with Cleveland heading in the wrong direction on defense. It was especially compounded against the Lakers, who are arguably one of the league's more disappointing teams this year despite their star talent.
“There wasn’t enough grit and there wasn’t enough scrap,” Bickerstaff said. “You can’t give up 64 points in your paint and expect to win a basketball game. You give up 130, you score 120, that should be a blowout for you.”
To be fair to the Cavaliers, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. James captivated everyone in attendance with a 38 point triple-double and made defensive stalwarts like Isaac Okoro, at times, look helpless in stopping James. There was one possession that Okoro defended James perfectly down to the end of the shot clock, only to see the former King of Cleveland swish an effortless fadeaway jumper. At that point, all you can do is just throw your hands up and admire the spectacle.
Not only that but it's also an easy reminder of how youth and inexperience can rear their heads at the worst time for Cleveland as well. The Cavaliers are down key players right now in Jarrett Allen and Rajon Rondo – who are both key veteran voices on the court. Without those two to guide them it's becoming easier for these young Cavaliers to become a prisoner of the moment at this point in the season.
Especially when it comes to the added pressure of this year's playoff race. But, more on that in the next segment.
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The Cavaliers are having an identity crisis at the worst possible time this season and need to do some soul searching before their stellar season comes to unfortunate early end.
Will pressure finally crack Cleveland's diamond season?
Monday's loss to the Lakers wasn't the only time this week the Cavaliers looked lost on defense. Honestly, it's become a recurring issue for Cleveland since around the time of the All-Star Break. Some of that is to be expected with how young this team is and trying to use advanced defensive metrics in December to prove the team's worth was always a fool's errand. So, some of this regression was to be expected.
That's all well and good but, the decline the Cavaliers are experiencing right now on the defensive side of the ball is very much unexpected. Cleveland has regressed dramatically on that end of the court after being one of the league's very best all season long. That, along with the lack of overall offensive firepower available, has put the Cavaliers in a bit of a tailspin. Now, instead of the playoffs, they're in the conversation for the play-in tournament this season.
Granted, their recent slide has come at the hands of two very talented teams and LeBron James. But, after Cleveland's latest loss, some of the players are sharing insight into what's holding them back.
“We’re in this playoff spot and it’s super close and everybody is just all tight and we don’t have to be like that," said Darius Garland. "Lot of games left. Lot of basketball left for us to get better and hopefully get into this playoff.
“We have never been in this position. This is all new to us. We just have to get through it. We wanted to be here, we asked for it and know what we have to do to get wins and we have to get back to that.”
It's been hard to figure out why the Cavaliers have looked lost as of late. But, with Garland's admission, it makes a little sense as to why Cleveland has struggled lately. But, thankfully, Caris LeVert, Garland's new starting partner, might have a possible simple remedy.
“I think this team early in the season, I obviously wasn't a part of it, but from the outside looking in, there were no expectations or playing tight or anything. We were just having fun going out there winning games,” said LeVert.
As for how the Cavaliers can play freely like that again, LeVert said, “Just embracing the moment, staying in the moment, not really worrying about the standings or the playoffs. Just focusing on right now, the possession right in front of us. And I think when we do that, we're at our best, and we just got to keep that mindset going forward.”
If Cleveland is able to stay present, they should be okay. They have to play the dreadful Orlando Magic twice during the remainder of their schedule and that should help them hopefully climb back into the playoff conversation. If not, things could get a lot dicier.
It might be time to talk about the Cavaliers making the play-in tournament instead of the playoffs.
Record check-in – Where do the Cavaliers finish in the Eastern Conference?
As mentioned at the top, going forward until the season ends we'll be checking in on Cleveland and guesstimate where they'll finish overall in the Eastern Conference standings. As of Monday morning, they are in seventh place and would host Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets in the play-in tournament.
But, after this three-game slide, it's going to be very hard for the Cavaliers to get back into the playoff conversation unless everything goes perfectly for them down the stretch. Unfortunately, things aren't ever perfect and it's especially hard when you're dealing with so many injuries.
Final record prediction: 45-37, plays Brooklyn in the play-in tournament, loses, plays the winner between Charlotte and Atlanta for eighth seed.
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