“We’ll be fine.”
“It’s a tough loss, but we’ll regroup.”
“We’re not too concerned.”
These examples of coach-speak have been used, in some way or another, by Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue a few times this season. His team has been susceptible to some ugly losses, especially lately. However, both he and his players usually try to shrug the defeats off and move on from rough nights.
Based on this past week, it appears Lue is no longer interested in running back “no big deal” clichés. A string of embarrassingly bad defensive performances has forced him to take the gloves off, and he’s refusing to hold back in criticizing the team.
If you’ve watched the Cavs at all this week, you know said critique is more than well deserved.
After finally looking like a competent defensive team in last week’s wins over the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz, Cleveland has once again decided to let opponents score at will. In the last three games, the Cavs have allowed 108, 120 and 126 points, going 1-2 in said contests. Setting aside the fact the first was the much-debated star-less game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the numbers are still alarming. Add in the fact Cleveland still ranks near the bottom of the league in PPG allowed, and you’re quick to realize this is no small slump.
However, the lack of effort this week seemed to finally push Lue over the edge.
Even though the Cavs beat a bad Los Angeles Lakers squad Sunday night, not many accolades were handed out by their coach. Asked about the performance afterwards, Lue claimed Cleveland’s lack of effort was something he expected.
“I knew they were going to play well against us. I know our team and the way we are,” Lue said. “Sometimes you have to understand it’s not a show, it’s a competition. We get to LA and play teams like this, we consider it a show instead of a competition. And you get down early, teams get confidence and now you have to fight and struggle to win the game.”
He doubled down last night, when Cleveland got pasted by a good-not-great Denver Nuggets team. Lue made no subtitles about how Denver compares to a Cavs club expected to make another Finals run.
“They’re a good team they played hard, they run a lot of good stuff. But they’re still a team that’s fighting for the eighth spot,” Lue said. “We’re the No. 1 team in the East. We gotta play better and we understand that. We got our butts kicked today, and it starts today. We gotta be better.
“A team’s up 40 points and they’re just playing physical and hard. We’re down 40 and we got guys just walking away and doing whatever.”
For those who’ve watched Cleveland lately, this is an incredibly welcomed departure from Lue’s typical postmortem. The Cavs have never looked very impressive on defense this season, and with the postseason not far off in the distance, something has to change. Knowing this, Lue appropriately realized his team needs to be put on notice.
It’d be easy to shrug these losses off, to note the handful of head-scratching defeats the Cavs collected in each of the past two seasons which caused doubt. “They’ll be fine,” you’d think, knowing Cleveland overcame blunder-filled defeats in seasons past on the way to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances.
At the same time, the Cavs’ defensive woes have plagued them all season long. Sure they’ve been alleviated here and there, but the problems always end up creeping back into the picture.
One would hope Lue’s decision to call out the effort of his team – both in victory and defeat – is his attempt to right the ship before games really matter. He did the same last year after a particularly embarrassing loss to the Brooklyn Nets when he called out everyone in a private meeting and changed the way Cleveland played through the rest of the season.
With any luck, what Lue’s doing now would have the same affect. If Cleveland continues to play defense with the same lazy effort we’ve seen through most of the season, this year’s playoff run will be notably shorter. The Eastern Conference is no longer the cake-walk it was last season, so if the Cavs anticipate another breezy trip to the Finals, they have another thing coming.
Clearly Lue realized his team is low on time to fix everything, deciding to no longer shrug off ugly losses. His public call-outs have been both refreshing and necessary.
Here’s hoping they have the same impact as last year. If Lue’s message falls on deaf ears and we continue to see Cleveland sleepwalk on defense, the team is going to learn its lesson the hard way come playoff time.
Casey Drottar is an independent sports writer. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook