CLEVELAND, Ohio — Even during some tough stretches the last few years the Cleveland Cavaliers have been able to rely on their offense. A team built to bomb 3-pointers and demoralize opponents on that end, Cleveland has been able to outshoot the mistakes.
Well, it’s time to add a suddenly floundering offense to the pile of problems.
On Friday night, the Cavs — ranked fourth in offensive efficiency entering the game — were held below 100 points once again. That’s six of the last nine games, a stretch that started against the suffocating Golden State defense at the beginning of this grueling portion of the schedule. Who knew that day would be one to send the three-time Eastern Conference champions spiraling into disarray?
Before that Christmas Day showdown, the Cavs hit the century mark in 26 straight. They were burying 3-pointers as if they were layups.
Over the last nine games, Cleveland is averaging 103 points (22nd in the NBA) on 42.1 percent shooting (30th) and 33.7 percent from beyond the arc (26th). Their offensive rating puts them 26th during this funk, almost on par with the frightful defense, and they rank 29th in assists per game.
Of all the expected issues, the offense tumbling is the most surprising, especially given Isaiah Thomas’ recent return.
Things looked promising early against Indiana. Thanks to some sloppy passes by the Pacers, poor floor balance, numerous missed jumpers and increased effort on the defensive end from the agenda-driven Cavs, transition opportunities were available and they capitalized. The Cavs have always said they play best when racing out in the open floor, getting easy baskets while the opponent is on its heels.
The up-tempo offense led to 34 first-quarter points. More than half were fastbreak buckets, which masked those recent halfcourt troubles.
Once the pace slowed and the Cavs needed to execute against a set defense, the problems quickly reappeared.
“First half I thought we really had a good punch offensively pushing the pace, pushing the basketball,” head coach Tyronn Lue told reporters. “I think we had 34 points in transition. Came out in that third quarter just walking around. We didn’t push, we didn’t attack. It could’ve been a little tired or fatigue, I’m not sure. But we really didn’t attack in that third quarter. Just walking around.”
It started before then. In the final three quarters, the Cavs shot 24-of-64 (37.5 percent) from the field and had just 12 assists after dishing out seven during the promising first period.
With little ball movement and few weakside cuts, the Cavs scored just 37 points in the second half. They failed to tally in the final 3:56 of the fourth quarter, missing eight straight shots to cap a horrific road trip.
It’s fair to point out that both Thomas and Dwyane Wade were resting, the Cavs not wanting to push it on the second game of a back-to-back. Perhaps that would’ve lessened James’ burden and kept the offense from bogging down. After all, Wade is second on the team in assists and one of the primary ball handlers.
Instead of mainly ignoring an open, untrustworthy JR Smith on a few possessions late in the fourth quarter, Wade or Thomas would’ve been in that spot, possibly providing enough punch to prevent an early 22-point lead from vanishing. Then again, both players have been around for this poor stretch so it’s tough to go down that excuse road.
Magnifying the issue, the Cavs are 0-8 when scoring less than 100 points. That points to a feeble defense, one not good enough to pick up the slack for a less-than-stellar offensive showing. It puts quite a burden on that end of the floor.
Friday night was simply a microchosm of this recent stretch. There was a lack of scoring balance, with James and Kevin Love accounting for more than half of the output. The other three starters — Jose Calderon (in Thomas’ spot), Jae Crowder and Smith — scored just 22. Triples weren’t dropping, as the Cavs went 7-of-34 (20.5 percent) from deep, including 2-of-12 (16.6 percent) in the fourth quarter. The ball stopped moving. The spacing was poor. And there were curious lineup combinations.
The January slog is nothing new. Defensive issues have become commonplace. But a middling offense? That has to be worrisome.
“We need to figure it out and right the ship,” Love said recently. “But, you never like to go through it. There’s a lot of growing pains and we’re feeling that now. We have enough talent here to get over that hump and make a lot of good things happen. But right now it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it is there. This being my fourth year here, we will get out of it and we will get better.”