CLEVELAND — With the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ rocky opening to the 2017-18 season looking like growing pains at best and an all-out free fall at worst, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue called his team’s latest loss — a 114-95 rout at the hands of the New York Knicks — “unacceptable” as the record dropped to 3-4.
“Tonight’s loss and the last couple are unacceptable, and the only way we’re going to be able to get out of it is to put the work in — as players, as coaches,” Lue said. “And we’re going to do that. … When you lose to teams the way we’ve been getting beat, it’s unacceptable.”
Cleveland has lost four of its past five games by an average of 16.8 points per defeat. It isn’t just the losses but also the caliber of opponent that is alarming. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time since April of his rookie season that a LeBron James team has lost three straight games against teams that didn’t make the playoffs the previous season.
“Until we get our spirits right, it’s going to be like this,” Lue said.
It’s not that the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cavs are struggling against the Golden States and Houstons of the world. The current stretch of bad basketball has come against Orlando, Brooklyn, New Orleans and New York.
“Guys are just scoring at will against us. Our defense is pretty bad right now. So that’s the number one thing,” James said after the Knicks put four players in double figures, led by Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s 34 points and Kristaps Porzingis‘ 32.
New York, which came into the game averaging just 4.5 fast-break points per game, outscored the Cavs 13-4 in transition. The Knicks also torched Cleveland from outside, hitting 13-for-28 from beyond the arc (46.4).
The loss snapped a 10-game winning streak for the Cavs over the Knicks. Cleveland’s dry spell also saw the Magic put an end to the Cavs’ 17-game winning streak over Orlando.
The Cavs are allowing 109.8 points per 100 possessions this season, the making them the second worst team in defensive efficiency in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only the Nets.
“Teams just look faster than we do at every position,” Lue said. “They’re running fast, they’re spreading, they’re pushing the ball up the floor. It’s like we can’t keep up.”
“Our transition defense is pretty bad,” James concurred. “I mean, I think everything defensively.”
The offense hasn’t been too hot, either. Cleveland shot 38.3 percent from the field as a team Sunday. It was the second time they failed to crack 40 percent from the field during a home game this season. Last year, they didn’t reach their second sub-40 percent game at Quicken Loans Arena until Christmas, according to Elias.
Yet again, things fell apart for the Cavs in the first quarter, as the Knicks sprinted ahead 29-19. In the past five games, Cleveland has been outscored by 54 points in the first quarter combined.
“Second unit is coming in and getting us a good lift, giving us energy, but first unit we got to be better,” Lue said.
Indeed, the Cavs’ bench outscored New York’s reserves 30-13, led by 13 points from Kyle Korver and six points and five assists from Dwyane Wade, but even the Cavs’ substitutes suffered a setback, with Iman Shumpert missing the game because of right knee soreness.
“I know everyone here cares,” Korver said. “Everyone here works incredibly hard on a daily basis. Everyone loves the game. We’re just not putting it together on the court. As five guys, we’re not in sync.”
The Cavs have Monday off and will spend the evening together at James’ annual Halloween party, complete with costumes, music, drinks and dancing.
Then they’ll try to get back on track Wednesday, when they host the Indiana Pacers, another supposed Eastern Conference cellar dweller that might not be an easy out, considering the way the Pacers upset the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. Whatever happens against the Pacers, the Cavs have put themselves behind the eight ball. According to ESPN’s BPI, New York marked the fifth game of a six-game stretch that is Cleveland’s easiest six-game stretch of the season. Now the best Cleveland can hope is to split those cupcakes.
Kevin Love, who logged his sixth double-double in the Cavs’ seven games with 22 points and 11 rebounds against the Knicks, said teams are treating Cleveland the way that Cleveland used to treat opponents.
“We’re so much a better team when we’re running back down and the other team’s struggling — not the other way around,” Love said. “We need to change that. A lot of that can be fixed with effort. We have the talent here. That’s obvious. On paper, we look great, but now we need to go out there and kind of be assertive and have our will take care of that for us, but right now, we got to figure it out.”
The loss to the Knicks came on the 14-year anniversary of James’ NBA debut. He had 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals that night in a 14-point loss to the Sacramento Kings. On Sunday, he finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and two steals in the 19-point loss.
“I played better 14 years ago than I did tonight,” James said.
Yet all of the games James has played in between those bookends allow him to process the loss with plenty of perspective.
“What is this? October? I’m not about to go crazy over it right now,” he said. “It’s too long of a season, and I’ve been a part of this too many times, so I’m the wrong guy to ask. I’m too positive right now.
“All it takes is a win. That’s all it takes. All it takes is a win, and then things will start feeling better, and we’ll start feeling better about ourselves. So we just need a win.”